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President Obama’s Drug War Sentence Commutations Reach a Record 944

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On Saturday, President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 72 more drug war inmates, bringing his total commutations throughout his two terms to 944. The pace of Obama’s commutations is picking up as he approaches the end of his time in office. In a similar move one month earlier, he commuted the terms of 102 federal prison inmates—breaking all prior records. 

“The vast majority of today’s grants were for individuals serving unduly harsh sentences for drug-related crimes under outdated sentencing laws,” White House counsel Neil Eggleston said in a statement on October 6. “With today’s grants, the president has commuted 774 sentences, more than the previous 11 presidents combined. With a total of 590 commutations this year, President Obama has now commuted the sentences of more individuals in one year than in any other single year in our nation’s history.”

But with his latest round of commutations, praise from activists was tempered by an appreciation of the overwhelming size of the problem.

Political science professor P.S. Ruckman of Northern Illinois University  told National Public Radio: “Well, first, let me say I think that’s outstanding.” But he quickly added, “I guess, in a way, a kind of problem with that is it’s like comparing yourself to the bottom quarter of your class because recent presidents have been extraordinarily neglectful with respect to the pardon power and commutations of sentence in particular. So it wouldn’t be very hard or difficult, frankly, to grant more than many…recent presidents. President Obama’s also received many more applications for commutations of sentence than several of his predecessors combined.”

Indian Country Today Media Network meanwhile protests that the commutations have not extended to Native American political prisoner Leonard Peltier—who has for generations been the subject of an international campaign for his freedom. Peltier is serving two consecutive life terms for the murder of two FBI agents in 1973 during the Wounded Knee occupation on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and international human rights groups say he never received a fair trial. Before his death in 2013, South Africa’s political prisoner-turned-president Nelson Mandela joined the many public figures around the world who have called for the release of Peltier.

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