President Obama commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders Monday, doubling the number of clemencies he has granted as the administration seeks to correct what many see as the wrongs inflicted by mandatory minimum prison sentences.
The latest clemencies brought Obama's total commutations to 89, the largest number since President Johnson's 226.
Decades after the tough-on-crime era of the 1980s and 1990s, the Obama administration is hoping to combine the president's commutation powers with Justice Department reforms and support from sympathetic Republicans in Congress to change sentencing policies that have had a disproportionate effect on African Americans and Latinos.
"These men and women were not violent criminals ... their punishments didn't fit the crime," Obama said in a Facebook video posted Monday that showed him signing the commutations. "I believe that America, at its heart, is a nation of second chances, and I believe these folks deserve their second chance."
Obama plans to lay out the case for comprehensive criminal justice reform in a speech to the NAACP in Philadelphia on Tuesday. In Oklahoma on Thursday, he will become the first sitting president to go inside a federal correctional facility.
Noting that the U.S. spends $80 billion a year on incarceration, Obama said many drug offenders convicted under old laws were serving 20-year sentences, or even life terms, for crimes that would receive far lesser punishments under current guidelines.
One of those granted clemency Monday was John Wyatt of Las Cruces, N.M. He was sentenced in 2004 to 21 years for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. The sentence was longer, in part, because he had previously walked away from a halfway house.
Another was Telisha Watkins, who according to the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums was addicted to drugs by the age of 14 and dropped out of ninth grade while pregnant. Because of previous drug convictions and mandatory minimum guidelines, she was sentenced to 20 years in 2007 for acting as an intermediary to help a friend buy 18 ounces of cocaine.
Obama has commuted more sentences than his past four predecessors combined, but he lags far behind most of them in granting pardons. Although a commutation shortens a prisoner's sentence, a pardon wipes clean the offender's record. But pardons are usually more controversial, such as those granted by President Clinton on his last day in office.
Obama's clemencies constitute a fraction of the 7,889 clemency petitions pending from prisoners, according to the Justice Department. His efforts have so far fallen short of expectations set last April, when the Justice Department announced the most ambitious federal clemency program in 40 years and invited lawyers across the country to help tens of thousands of federal drug offenders apply.
Liberal advocacy groups welcomed the announcement, but said the 46 acts of mercy were "a drop in the bucket" compared with what they hoped Obama would do before he left office.
Jeremy Haile of the Sentencing Project in Washington said there were 7,000 to 8,000 prisoners still doing time for convictions involving crack cocaine who would not be in jail today under the 2010 reform of crack cocaine laws.
Before that, those convicted of possessing crack were subject to sentences far longer than those imposed on people who possessed the powder form of the drug. Since crack use was more common among blacks, African American drug offenders received longer sentences than white offenders, who tended to be convicted in cases involving powder cocaine.
A new private initiative to process clemency petitions, called Clemency Project 2014, bogged down after a series of unexpected obstacles, including difficulties in finding old paper court files in storage, said Cynthia W. Roseberry, the project manager. Also, federal public defenders were advised by courts not to get involved because they were already overburdened helping current clients, she said.
Only four of the 46 commutations ordered Monday came through her group's efforts, Roseberry said. The group has received 30,000 applications and so far has forwarded only 50 to the Justice Department's pardon attorney. Nearly half of the applications have been rejected as not meeting Justice Department guidelines, she said.
To be eligible for clemency, the prisoners must have served at least 10 years, had a good prison record and not been convicted of a violent offense. One of the toughest criteria to meet is that prisoners must be serving a longer sentence than they would receive today.
Most of those who received clemency Monday were convicted of selling crack cocaine. Fourteen of the 46 had been sentenced to life in prison.
Two years ago, former Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. told prosecutors across the country to stop using mandatory minimum sentences against lower-level, nonviolent offenders. At the same time, the U.S. Sentencing Commission revised downward its sentencing guidelines for some drug offenses.
But the White House and sentencing reform advocates say large-scale reform must come from Congress.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday that Obama "doesn't want to just have to rely on his constitutional authority as president of the United States to offer commutations. He actually is hopeful that we can develop and implement a legislative solution that would have a broader, more far-reaching impact in bringing greater fairness and justice to our criminal justice system."
Legislation that would free large numbers of prisoners and reform sentencing going forward has stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee and in the House, despite support from some Republicans, including several presidential candidates.
Part of the problem has been a cautious response by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.), but activists hope both men can be persuaded. Key Democrats, including Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, have also expressed reservations.