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President Obama’s Drug War Commutations Surpass 1,000

Bill Weinberg

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Continuing with his campaign of clemency for federal drug offenders who were imprisoned under outdated sentencing laws, last week President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 79 more inmates, bringing the total commutations throughout his two terms to to more than 1,000.

This number now far surpasses that of the previous 11 presidents combined. Bill Clinton granted 61 commutations, and George Bush just 11. But White House officials are still rushing to review all of the approximately 6,000 pending clemency applications before the end of Obama’s term.  

In 2016 alone, a total of 839 commutations have been granted.

“It makes no sense for a nonviolent drug offender to be serving decades, or sometimes life, in prison,” Obama said in announcing the new commutations. “That’s not serving taxpayers, and it’s not serving the public safety.”

Many activists are heartened by Obama’s acceleration of the clemency campaign.

“The president’s gracious act of mercy today with his latest round of commutations is encouraging,” Brittany Byrd, a Texas attorney who has represented several inmates seeking clemency since Obama’s initiative began in 2014, told the Washington Post. “He is taking historic steps under his groundbreaking clemency initiative to show the power of mercy and belief in redemption. Three hundred and forty-two men and women were set to die in prison. The president literally saved their lives.”

But others expressed impatience.

“At the risk of sounding ungrateful, we say, ‘Thanks, but please hurry,’'” said Kevin Ring, vice president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). “We know there are thousands more who received outdated and excessive mandatory sentences, and we think they all deserve to have their petitions considered before the president leaves office. Petitioners are starting to get anxious because they know the president is, in prison parlance, a ­short-timer.”

As the New York Times noted, Lyndon Johnson was the last president to leave office with a smaller federal prison population than he inherited. His successor, Richard Nixon, declared a “War on Drugs” in 1971, and the prison population has since ballooned into the world’s largest, with about one in every 100 adults incarcerated in local, state or federal facilities. That’s over 2 million souls, according to the BBC’s “World Prison Populations” page. The runner-up is China, with 1.5 million—out of a much higher total population.

There is little hope that a Donald Trump administration will keep Obama’s clemency initiative in place. In fact, during the campaign, Trump harshly criticized the initiative.

“Some of these people are bad dudes,” Trump said in October, after Obama’s last batch of commutations.

In his typically fear-mongering way, he added: “And these are people who are out, they’re walking the streets. Sleep tight, folks.”

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