Obama Commutes Sentences in Crack Cocaine Cases

Pushing back against the country's strict drug sentencing laws

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Updated at 3:29p.m. EST, Dec. 19 

President Barack Obama moved Thursday to speed the release of eight federal prisoners serving lengthy terms for crack cocaine offenses, in his most aggressive push against the country’s strict drug sentencing laws.

Obama said he was granting clemency to the eight inmates and commuting their sentences, and that he would also give pardons to 13 convicts who have already been released. He said he would retroactively apply new sentencing guidelines and drug laws to the eight convicted felons who are still serving time, and six will be released by April 17. Under current law, Obama said, “many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society.”

“Commuting the sentences of these eight Americans is an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness,” Obama said in a statement. “But it must not be the last. In the new year, lawmakers should act on the kinds of bipartisan sentencing reform measures already working their way through Congress. Together, we must ensure that our taxpayer dollars are spent wisely, and that our justice system keeps its basic promise of equal treatment for all.”

The sentencing new guidelines, which Attorney General Eric Holder announced over the summer, had already been applied to pending cases, but this action is the first to apply them retroactively for inmates already behind bars. Six of the eight inmates whose sentences are being commuted by Obama were on death row, and all of them had served longer than 15 years.

“Because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year,” Obama said.

Earlier this year, Obama and the Department of Justice announced new guidelines for applying mandatory minimum sentences to federal drug cases. Now, if the case involves a non-violent, low-level defendant who is not connected to a drug cartel or gang, it is up to the judge whether or not to apply the mandatory minimum sentence.

Thursday’s announcement was the latest in a series of actions the Obama administration has taken on criminal justice reform, especially as it relates to crack and powder cocaine. In 2011, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law, which reduces the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.

Obama also pardoned 13 people whose sentences have already been completed. The President has faced criticism for having only pardoned 39 people since he took office in 2009.

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, both praised and condemned the President for his actions on Thursday.

“Kudos to President Obama for commuting these eight people. But shame on the President for not commuting many more,” Nadelmann said in a statement. “With over 100,000 people still behind bars on non-violent drug charges, clearly thousands more are deserving of the same freedom. Congress should act immediately to reduce the draconian federal mandatory minimum sentences that condemn thousands to decades behind bars for non-violent drug offenses.”

-with reporting by Zeke Miller 

Update: This post was updated to include the quote from Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.