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Obama’s last act as president was to shorten over 1,000 unjust drug sentences

February 1, 2017

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In his last two months in office the quality of Barrack Obama’s mercy was matched only by its quantity.

As of December 24, the 44th President of the United States had used his executive privilege to issue pardons to people convicted of federal crimes only 64 times.

But by the time he had left office on January 19, 2017, president Obama had issued 212 pardons and a whopping 1,715 commutations, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

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Most of Obama’s 1,927 acts of presidential clemency represented a final effort in his administration’s 8-year campaign to undo decades of systemic discrimination and injustice in federal prison sentencing and catapulted him to become the fourth highest dispenser of executive clemency among all U.S. presidents.

When it comes to total presidential pardons and clemency, Obama only ranks behind the presidents who held office during the two World Wars: Harry Truman in third, with 2,044; Woodrow Wilson in second, with 2,480 and Franklin D. Roosevelt in first place, with 3,687.

Making the most of his last days in office

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The U.S. Constitution gives an American President a free hand to grant three kinds of executive clemency to persons convicted of federal crimes:

  • Full pardons—complete elimination of a conviction.
  • Commutations—reduction of a prison sentence.
  • Remissions—reduction of a financial penalty.

A full pardon frees a person serving a prison sentence by erasing their criminal conviction. A commutation may free a person serving a prison sentence or reduce the length of their sentence but it does not remove the conviction itself or any of the other civil disabilities which follow a conviction. Remission of fines or other financial penalties only apply to the part that has not already been paid.

Barrack Obama only handed out remissions as part of commutations and actually handed out a below average number of presidential pardons—only 212. This is the 6th lowest number of presidential pardons among the last 16 U.S. presidential administrations, going back to Warren G. Harding (who handed out the 2nd lowest number of 138).

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Where Obama set records for executive clemency was in the 1,715 prison sentences he commuted. This is by far the highest number among the last 16 presidents and fully three and a half times as many as the second place FDR, who only issued 488 commutations. It may rank as the highest among all U.S. Presidents, however commutations are not broken out going all the way back to George Washington.

The vast majority of Barrack Obama’s commutations (1,176 by January 14th) went to reduce inhumanly long federal prison sentences—including at least 400 life sentences—which were handed out to non-violent drug offenders going back to the 1980s, thanks to minimum mandatory prison sentences.

Commuting as many of these draconian drug possession sentences as possible before the end of its term, was a fitting finale for the Obama administration and added measurably to a legacy of reducing discrimination in the U.S. federal justice system, particularly where the so-called “war on drugs” was concerned.

A big part of this legacy is the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which was signed into law by Barrack Obama seven months into his first term as president.

Among other things, this act dramatically reduced the sentencing disparity that saw possession of a gram of crack cocaine punished as severely as possession of 100 grams of powdered cocaine—a distinction which served no other apparent purpose than to put disproportionate numbers of  black American behind bars.

The Fair Sentencing Act made federal crack cocaine sentences only 18 times harsher than powder cocaine sentences, instead of 100 times. The act eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine and helped cut in half the number of federal prosecutions of crack cocaine offenders. Five years after passage of the act, the use of crack cocaine was seen to have measurably declined, rather than increasing, as some critics of the act had feared.

However, this act did nothing to help the tens of thousands of mostly black Americans already condemned to prison terms of 20 years to life for non-violent crimes of simple drug possession.

According to Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, who helped spearhead the clemency initiative in the final two years of the Obama administration, by December of 2016, the U.S. Justice Department was literally working around the clock to process thousands of clemency petitions filed by federal prisoners. As of January 14, Justice officials had completed their review of more than 16,000 petitions and delivered their recommendations to president Obama.

This set the stage for the record number of executive clemency orders signed by Barrack Obama in the last few days of his term as president.

As of December 19, 2016, Obama had commuted a total of 1,176 prison sentences during his two terms as president. On January 17, 2017 alone, he commuted 209 and on January 19—his last day as President of the United States—Barrack Obama set an all-time record for the one day issuance of commutations, when he commuted 330 federal prison sentences.

Among Obama’s commutation orders:

  • Christopher Demetrius Elliot’s 2007 sentence of 15 years for possession of a firearm and ammunition by a convicted felon along with possession of marijuana, was commuted to expire on May 19, 2017.
  • Dorian Lee Benoit’s 2008 sentence of 25 years for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine, cocaine base and marijuana, was commuted to 15 years, conditional on enrollment in drug treatment.
  • Maria Aide Delgado’s 2010 sentence to over 28 years in prison and a fine of $15,000, for three counts of conspiracy with intent to distribute cocaine, cocaine base and marijuana, was commuted to just over 9 years, with the fine remitted.
  • Alpidio Gonzalez’s 2008 sentence of 30 years for violation of the Federal Controlled Substance Act and a supervised release violation (conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 100 kilograms or more of marijuana), was commuted to 20 years.
  • Keith O. Cobb’s 1995 sentence of over 33 years for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute cocaine, as well as money laundering, was commuted to expire on December 19, 2018, with the unpaid balance of a $10,000 fine remitted upon his release, conditional on enrollment in drug treatment.

From → drugs, United States

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