Over the next several weeks, President Obama is expected to commute the sentences of up 80 people, serving time for non-violent, drug-related offenses, according to the New York Times.
The move is seen as a way to correct what many see as unreasonable over-sentencing thanks to “tough on crime” politicians who set up mandatory minimum drug sentencing that has especially affected young men of color.
According to the ACLU, the United States is the world’s largest jailer—with only five percent of the world’s population, the U.S. houses 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Since 1970, the prison population has risen 700 percent, making this the highest rate of imprisonment in American history.
When the so-called War on Drugs officially began in 1971 under President Nixon, incarceration rates skyrocketed. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, the number of people behind bars for non-violent drug offenses rose from 50,000 in 1980 to over 400,000 by 1997.
Democrats and Republicans seem to agree that mandatory sentencing of non-violent drug users went too far, and now the exorbitant prison population and red tape involved in clemency and enacting reasonable drug policies is a bureaucratic mess. More than 30,000 federal inmates have come forward in response to the administration’s call for clemency applications and just a small number of them have reached the president’s desk for a signature.
“It’s a time when conservatives and liberals and libertarians…have come together in order to focus attention on excessive sentences, the costs and the like, and the need to correct some of those excesses,” Neil Eggleston, the White House counsel who recommends clemency petitions to President Obama, said.
The Clemency Project 2014, a consortium of lawyers from groups including the American Bar Association and ACLU, is helping to expedite the 30,000 applications.
Some criticize Obama’s move as being too slow and cumbersome as the clemency applications far outnumber the resources needed to process them. But others see it as change in attitude toward an injustice that has gone on for too long.