President Obama on Friday commuted the sentences of 95 prisoners, including many who were expecting to spend the rest of their lives behind bars.
Obama has now commuted 184 sentences, mostly for nonviolent drug offenders. The White House said that’s more than the combined total of the previous five presidents.
For Obama, it was the largest number of clemencies he has granted in a single action. In July he granted 46. A year ago he granted just eight.
But when including pardons, Obama still lags behind several of his predecessors, and there has been mounting criticism from liberal groups that he is not doing enough.
“A lot of people are being left behind,” said Jeremy Haile, federal advocacy counsel for the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit advocacy group. He said thousands are still in jail for selling crack cocaine under a law that has since been altered by Congress.
“There are still over 5,000 people serving sentences under the old crack cocaine law, and we see no reason why they shouldn’t by commuted forthwith,” Haile said.
Concurrently with the White House announcement, Stanford Law School announced that it had reached an agreement with the White House to use ex-prisoners based in Los Angeles to help the 95 commutees transition from federal prison to halfway houses. The program will provide newly released prisoners with a meal, help them shop for personal items, and transport them to the halfway houses.
“This is an especially vulnerable group,” said Michael Romano, director of Stanford’s Justice Advocacy Project. “They get this letter out of the blue from the president saying they are going to be freed. That transition is extremely challenging emotionally, psychologically and logistically.”
Thousands of other prisoners being released under a different program -- the result of recent changes in U.S. Sentencing Commission guidelines -- but they are getting no such help. Many go straight home because halfway houses are overloaded.
The White House called Friday for Congress to move forward with bills passed in committees of both the Senate and House to reform sentencing laws, potentially affecting a much larger group than Obama has to date.
While House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) recently expressed strong support for advancing such legislation, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has yet to commit himself to bringing the issue to the floor.
“Clemency is just one way for the president to bring greater fairness to our criminal justice system,” said White House Counsel Neil Eggleston. “Comprehensive reform will be needed to truly address the inequities in our criminal justice system, and the administration continues to work in bipartisan fashion to secure those reforms.”