There’s no need to beat around the bush, the United States has a major prison problem. With just 5% of the world’s population, America stakes claim to 25% of the global prison population, far and away the highest rate of incarceration on earth. A majority of these inmates are minorities locked up for drug-related crimes, which has led to overcrowded prisons with decrepit conditions and an unprecedented amount of spent taxpayer dollars.
Though we have a long way to go to solve this glaring issue, President Barack Obama has spent his last year in the Oval Office working to alleviate our massive prison problem. Back in August, Obama granted clemency to 214 prison inmates across the country, surpassing his previously set single-day record. Yesterday, the President continued his streak by commuting the sentences of another 102 federal prisoners, bringing his total number to 774.
A majority of these commuted prison sentences were for prisoners serving time for drug-related crimes, showing dedication to his wish to reform the criminal justice system. Still, from August onward, records show that 39% of the inmates that have had their sentences commuted still have a year or more left to serve. 21 of these 102 inmates were scheduled to be released on February 3, 2017 while the rest will be released later in 2017 or in the following years. Obama has also started to dig beyond drug-related charges, as 22% of the inmates granted clemency since August were also being held on firearm charges.
"The vast majority of today’s grants were for individuals serving unduly harsh sentences for drug-related crimes under outdated sentencing laws," said White House counsel Neil Eggleston. "With today’s grants, the President has commuted 774 sentences, more than the previous 11 presidents combined. With a total of 590 commutations this year, President Obama has now commuted the sentences of more individuals in one year than in any other single year in our nation’s history."
Though this movement started as a way to reduce the sentences of individuals convicted of drug crimes, it is important recognize the difference between sentence commutations and full pardons. Unlike a padron, the criminal charges that led to the sentence in the first place are not nullified with a commutation. Essentially, Obama is commuting sentences from the ‘80s and ‘90s and attempting to reduce the length of the sentence to the length it would if the prisoner was charged today. Though a reduction of these drug-related sentences is a step in the right direction, it still leaves behind a criminal record for the incarcerated individual.
As Obama wraps up his time in office, he’s been doing everything in his power to help federal inmates who fell victim to the draconian drug laws of the 1980s and 1990s. The White House has received roughly 1,200 requests for clemency, but with only a few months left in the Oval Office, it’s highly unlikely that Obama will be able to get to them all.