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Obama Commutes Sentences for 46 Prisoners Serving Time for Drug Crimes

“Their punishments didn't fit the crime,” the president said of his decision to free the non-violent offenders, including 14 serving sentences of life without parole.
Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

President Barack Obama announced on Monday that he will commute the sentences of 46 prisoners serving time for drug offenses.

Fourteen of the prisoners who will be freed early are serving sentences of life without parole for non-violent crimes. "Their punishments didn't fit the crime," Obama said in a video released by the White House.

The United States Sentencing Commission voted unanimously last year to reduce the penalties for drug crimes, and to enact the new rules retroactively, meaning almost 50,000 federal inmates could potentially face shorter sentences.


Civil liberties advocates have long pushed for an end to the war on drugs, which was declared by President Richard Nixon in 1971 and intensified in the 1980s amid hysteria surrounding the emergence of crack cocaine.

Related: Why Are There Up to 120,000 Innocent People in US Prisons?

"These older, stringent punishments that are out of line with sentences imposed under today's laws erode people's confidence in our criminal justice system," former Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole said in a statement in April 2014.

Obama echoed that sentiment on Monday.

"These men and women were not hardened criminals. But the overwhelming majority had been sentenced to at least 20 years," the president said. "If they've been sentenced under today's laws, nearly all of them would have served their time".

The Department of Justice said previously that clemency applications would be evaluated on the basis of whether inmates had demonstrated good behavior during their time in prison, their criminal history, if their drug convictions had ties to gang or cartel activity, and if their sentence would have been significantly lower had they been convicted under today's laws.

"I believe that, at its heart, America is a nation of second chances," Obama said.

The president has promised to reform the criminal justice system, an issue that has found bipartisan support. US taxpayers pay around $80 billion annually to house inmates serving time for nonviolent drug offenses.


In March, Obama commuted the sentences of 22 prisoners serving time for drug offenses, and he has now issued nearly 89 total commutations. The president has been stingy with his pardons, and political science professor P.S. Ruckman, who covers pardon issues on his blog Pardon Power, noted that today's news means Obama has sunk back into ninth position in the list of "least merciful presidents in history," down from seventh place.

Obama will tour El Reno federal prison in Oklahoma this week — a visit that will make him the first sitting US president to visit a federal correctional facility. He will meet with prisoners, law enforcement officials, and prison staff, and will be accompanied by VICE film crew for a special report on the criminal justice system.

Related: Obama to Make First-Ever Presidential Visit to a Federal Prison for VICE Special

On Monday, the White House published a letter addressed to Jerry Allen Bailey informing him of his clemency. Bailey is currently an inmate at Jesup, a medium security federal prison in Georgia.Bailey was sentenced to 30 years in 1996 for a crack cocaine conspiracy.

"Thousands of individuals applied for commutation," Obama writes, "and only a fraction were approved. I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around."

Bailey is set to walk free on November 20, 2015. "I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong," Obama wrote. "So good luck, and Godspeed."

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Watch the VICE News documentary, Institutionalized: Mental Health Behind Bars