Amid the chaos of ongoing presidential campaigns and their nonstop contribution to the 24-hour news cycle, President Obama quietly made history. With nearly eight years in office, Obama has done more than any other president to call attention to the fact that addiction is a chronic disease and not a moral failure. And he has acted on that conviction.
“Today began like any other for 214 federal inmates across the country, but ultimately became a day I am confident they will never forget,” wrote Neil Eggleston, White House Counsel to the President, in a statement last Wednesday. “This morning, these individuals received a message from the President: your application for clemency has been granted.”
What’s Included in President Obama’s Most Recent Commutations?
- Almost all of the 214 inmates were sentenced to federal prison for nonviolent drug crimes, though a few had firearms violations related to drugs
- 67 individuals out of the 214 were serving life sentences
- Most of the commutations were for males, but there were females granted clemency as well
- This action marks the largest grant of clemency in a single day since 1900
- President Obama has granted 562 total commutations while in office – 197 of which were serving life – more than any other president in the last 100 years
Having a sentence commuted is not the same as receiving a pardon. President Obama has only granted 70 pardons during his tenure in office, which is the lowest number of any sitting president since James Garfield in 1881.
In fact, as Eggleston explains, the president reviews each individual application and grants specific forms of relief based on its merits.
Some of the latest recipients might be eligible for immediate release, but only if they agree to addiction treatment and counseling services first.
There are others among the group who will continue to serve time. With clemency, their sentences are reduced to reflect current policies rather than some of the harsh minimum mandatory laws passed in the 1980s.
What Happened to Sentencing Reform?
Before the politicking of campaign season, Democrats and Republicans appeared as if they’d come together on the idea of sentencing reform, especially as it related to nonviolent drug crime. Promising legislation has since stalled in Congress, due in large part to an increasing political and social divide between the two parties.
Even in the face of an opioid crisis, where more Americans than ever before battle addictions to prescription painkillers and heroin, Congress is gridlocked over legislation that at the very least, would start to address the issue. Fortunately, President Obama is unwilling to sit still while the senate and house bicker.
In 2014, Obama ordered the Department of Justice to prioritize clemency petitions for individuals with nonviolent drug offenses who would likely be serving less time had they been sentenced more recently.
According to The New York Times, The Clemency Resource Center reports there are still 11,000 pending clemency petitions, 1,500 of which that meet the administration’s requirements.
Society’s take on addiction feels as if it is shifting. Civic leaders on the local, state and federal level have come to realize that “tough love” is not an effective approach for treating a chronic disease. While there is still a lot of work left to do, Eggleston closed his statement by defining President Obama’s principles on these issues:
“All of the individuals receiving commutation today – incarcerated under outdated and unduly harsh sentencing laws – embody the president’s belief that ‘America is a nation of second chances.'”