The United States has become the land of the free once again for several prisoners of the domestic drug war. Earlier this week, President Obama used his executive authority to commute the sentences of 22 individuals incarcerated for drug-related offenses, a move that more than doubled the number of commutations the president has granted since moving into the White House nearly seven years ago.
This act of clemency was all part of an effort to reduce federal mandatory minimum sentencing. The men and women whose names found their way to the president’s list of absolution had been convicted of a variety of offenses ranging from the distribution of methamphetamine and heroin to the cultivation of marijuana. Eight of the 22 released from the shackles of an “outdated sentencing regime” were serving life in prison without the possibility for parole for their indiscretions with powders and plants.
According to a statement from White House counsel Neil Eggleston, “Had they been sentenced under current laws and policies, many of these individuals would have already served their time and paid their debt to society. Because many were convicted under an outdated sentencing regime, they served years — in some cases more than a decade — longer than individuals convicted today of the same crime.”
To qualify for this round of commutations, petitioners must have displayed a clean prison record and given no indication that they would pose a threat to civil society upon their release. In a letter sent to the 22 individuals, President Obama explained that they have been selected because they demonstrated the potential to turn their lives around.
“Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity,” Obama wrote. “It will not be easy, and you will confront many who doubt people with criminal records can change. Perhaps even you are unsure of how you will adjust to your new circumstances.”
The Obama Administration has made it a part of their mission to take a stand against mass incarceration in the United States, announcing earlier last year a plan to chip away at mandatory minimums while making it easier for non-violent offenders to apply for clemency. To make this a reality, the Justice Department expanded its criteria for clemency in 2014 to include six eligibility requirements that moves drug offenders, who have served at least 10 years with no history of violence or organized crime affiliation, to the top of the list.
Unfortunately, while the latest announcement is encouraging, there is still a great deal of work that has to be done to fully address the problem of mass incarceration in this country for non-violent drug offenders, like Antonio Bascaro and Jeff Mizanskey, who could end up dying in prison for marijuana-related offenses if the issue is not taken seriously in 2015. However, it will take an act of Congress to initiate the measures needed, including the passing of the Smarter Sentencing Act, to make significant progress in this area. And although there is bipartisan support for criminal justice reform, some Republicans have expressed concerns that while the reduction of sentences may be fiscally attractive, it remains a detriment to pubic safety.