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Obama Pardons Dozens of Nonviolent Federal Inmates

President Barack Obama explains his decision to pardon 46 nonviolent federal inmates on July 13, 2014. (White House)

President Barack Obama explains his decision to pardon 46 nonviolent federal inmates on July 13, 2014. (White House)

President Barack Obama on Monday commuted the sentences of 46 individuals imprisoned in federal lockups for nonviolent drug offenses, part of his administration’s efforts to address the mass incarceration of mostly poor, mostly minority Americans.

In a video announcement explaining the move, Obama said the dozens of pardoned prisoners had been given “unduly harsh sentences” that “didn’t fit their crimes.”

“These men and women were not hardened criminals but the overwhelming majority had been sentenced to at least 20 years. Fourteen of them had been sentenced to life for nonviolent drug offenses,” the president said, adding that nearly all of the freed inmates would have already served out the length of their prison terms if they had been sentenced today.

Obama said the commutations are part of a wider push to restore a public sense of fairness in what he called a “nation of second chances.” The move is also aimed at reducing operating costs and overcrowding in federal prisons.

The White House released a personal letter written by Obama to Jerry Allen Bailey, one of the pardoned prisoners who was previously denied a sentence reduction under new, more lenient guidelines announced last autumn. Bailey was serving a 30-year sentence for conspiracy to violate federal narcotics laws.

“The power to grant pardons and clemency is one of the most profound authorities granted to the President of the United States,” Obama wrote. “It embodies the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance after having made a mistake in their lives… I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around. Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity. It will not be easy and you will confront many who doubt people with criminal records can change.”

“But remember that you have the capacity to make good choices,” Obama continued. “By doing so, you will affect not only your own life, but those close to you. You will also influence, through your example, the possibility that others in your circumstances get their own second chance in the future.”

The pardoned inmates will first be sent to halfway houses to begin their transition back to life as free citizens before their scheduled release from Bureau of Prisons custody in November.

The Washington Post reports more than 35,000 inmates, or about 16 percent of the federal prison population, have applied for early release. Some 89 prisoners have been pardoned so far, 22 of them in March. The administration acknowledged that pardoning a relative handful of drug offenders alone will not correct pervasive injustices in sentencing and incarceration.

“While I expect the president will issue additional commutations and pardons before the end of his term, it is important to recognize that clemency alone will not fix decades of overly punitive sentencing policies,” White House attorney Neil Eggleston wrote in a blog post.

The president will spend the week focusing on sentencing reform. He is expected to visit a prison in Oklahoma and will deliver an address on the issue at the NAACP annual convention in Philadelphia on Tuesday, Bloomberg reports.

Obama, who has been criticized for fighting to keep most drug offenders imprisoned despite the updated sentencing guidelines, had granted fewer pardons than any president in modern history. But he has now granted more commutations than the four presidents who served before him, and his administration has been working to reduce minimum mandatory prison sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders for years. In 2013, then-attorney general Eric Holder announced the Smart on Crime initiative to combat what he called “draconian” federal sentencing in the “ineffective and unsustainable” war on drugs.

Holder acknowledged that “unwarranted (racial) disparities are far too common” in the US criminal justice system, echoing President Obama’s earlier comments that “there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws—everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws.”

One glaring example of this disparity is the difference in sentencing for powdered versus rock, or crack, cocaine. Despite the 2010 passage of the so-called Fair Sentencing Act, federal sentencing for crack cocaine is 18 times as severe as for powdered cocaine, a pharmacologically identical substance. Before the FSA, the disparity was 100:1. In other words, the prison sentence for 100 grams of powdered cocaine was the same as for one gram of crack.

Although whites and blacks use and sell illegal drugs at roughly the same rate in the US and whites are more likely to sell drugs, black men in at least 15 states have been imprisoned on drug charges at rates 20 to 50 times higher than white men. In seven states, blacks make up 80 to 90 percent of all jailed drug offenders. According to the federal government’s own statistics, of the more than 2,000 people charged with federal crack cocaine violations over a three-year period, all but 11 were black. None were white. In Georgia, more than 98 percent of those serving life prison sentences under a ‘two strikes and you’re out’ drug conviction policy were recently black, in large part because prosecutors only invoked the policy against 1 percent of white defendants in ‘two strikes’ situations.

In some cities, as many as four out of five young black men have criminal records, subjecting them to legalized discrimination for as long as they live. In Washington, DC, where previous presidential administrations protected international drug kingpins whose deadly products are sold on American streets, three out of four black men, and nearly all young black men in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, can expect to serve time in prison.

The United States, which is home to about 5 percent of the world’s population, has 25 percent the world’s prisoners. There are more than 2 million people behind bars in America, an increase of more than 800 percent since 1980. Blacks are incarcerated at about seven times the rate of whites, and there are more black men under correctional control today than there were slaves in 1850. Because those who serve time are often stripped of their voting rights even after they’ve paid their debt to society—in nine states, for life— more black men are disenfranchised today than when the 15th Amendment, which prohibited denying the vote to citizens based on “race, color or previous condition of servitude,” was ratified in 1870.

Nearly half of all federal prison inmates are incarcerated for drug offenses. The prison-industrial complex, or the overlapping interests of government and industry that critics say use surveillance, policing and incarceration as solutions to economic, social and political problems, profits mightily from mass incarceration. This is especially true of the multi-billion dollar private prison industry.

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