In a single stroke, President Obama on Tuesday doubled the number of sentence commutations he has granted to federal prisoners since taking office, clearing the way for the release of 22 drug offenders.
The move was part of an administration effort to reduce disparities in drug sentencing and scale back mandatory minimum prison sentences.
Most of those who will be released early were convicted of selling large amounts of cocaine and sentenced to decades or sometimes life in prison.
To be considered by Obama for commutation, prisoners must have posed no threat to public safety, had a clean prison record and had been sentenced under outdated laws, White House Counsel Neil Eggleston said.
In the past, the White House also insisted that prisoners had served 10 years of their sentence, but Eggleston made no mention of that as a criterion and one of those commuted had served less.
Obama had previously commuted just 21 sentences in his six years in office.
The 43 commutations by Obama to date are but a tiny percent of the total serving time for drugs.
"With around 100,000 people in federal prison serving drug sentences, there is a lot more work to be done," said Jeremy Haile, a lawyer for the Sentencing Project advocacy group.
ABout half of those who received commutations Tuesday had been sentenced under a law recently changed by Congress that treated crack cocaine arrests, most frequently involving minorities, much more harshly than those involving powder cocaine, sentencing experts said. Others were sentenced under mandatory minimums that have been scaled back by the Justice Department.
The effort has been a signature issue of Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. Nearly three-quarters of federal drug offenders are black or Latino.
But figures released by the Sentencing Commission on Tuesday indicate that the administration's efforts have had only a small effect so far. The number of drug offenders entering federal prison dropped just 4% in the most recent fiscal year, the commission said.
Eggleston hinted that additional commutations are in the works, saying that "there's more work ahead."