“A nation of second chances”: President Obama commutes 46 sentences

In his push to overhaul the nation’s criminal justice system, President Obama commuted the sentences of 46 inmates who are currently incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses, making him the president who has commuted the most sentences in more than 40 years.

Photo by Nick Knupffer (Flickr)

President Obama announced that he was commuting the sentences of 46 federal prisoners in July, the majority of whom are nonviolent drug offenders.  The commutations are part of his current campaign to overhaul the nation’s criminal justice system and address issues of sentencing disparity.

“These men and women were not hardened criminals,” President Obama said in a video posted on the White House website.  “So their punishments didn’t fit the crime.”  President Obama noted that most of the offenders had been sentenced to at least 20 years, and 14 had received life sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.  “If they had been sentenced under today’s laws, nearly all of them would have already served their time,” he said.

lawmakers from both parties have called for widespread change across the nation’s criminal justice system

In April of last year, the Obama administration made it clear that it was beginning to push toward freeing nonviolent offenders who did not pose a threat to public safety.  In response to efforts by the administration to grant more commutations, the Justice Department set out criteria for those who may qualify for commutations.  The criteria includes: those who have been well-behaved during their period of incarceration, those who would not have received such a harsh sentence under the current sentencing laws, and nonviolent inmates who have served more than 10 years in prison.  Since last year, more than 35,000 inmates have applied for early release.

This focus on commuting lengthy sentences corresponds with President Obama’s recent efforts to correct the strict sentencing laws of past decades, when politicians strived to appear “tough on crime” and waged the War on Drugs.  One of the major injustices of these strict sentencing laws was the disproportionate impact on people of color.

“What the president is doing is showing the public through his power that there are people who are in jail for nonviolent drug offenses who have something to contribute to society and should not be there,” Michael Collins, the policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance, said in an interview with The New York Times.  “The drug war has been a war on people of color,” Collins said, noting that policies such as mandatory minimum sentences “have really decimated these communities.”

President Obama’s efforts have garnered bipartisan support, as multiple Republicans running for president have also called for changes in the criminal justice system.  However, some lawmakers are critical of President Obama’s recent commutations.

“Rather than taking a serious look at criminal justice reform, today President Obama chose to engage in publicity stunts and political pandering,” Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Wisconsin, said in an interview with the New York Times.

Despite some criticism of the commutations, lawmakers from both parties have called for widespread change across the nation’s criminal justice system, as the United States Sentencing Commission recently revised its guidelines for drug offenses.

When a sentence is commuted, the inmate is not declared innocent of the crime for which he was incarcerated

The process of achieving a commutation is rather lengthy and is somewhat similar to being granted a pardon, yet the two have several substantive differences.

Inmates can apply for executive clemency, which includes both pardons and commutations, after which the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney reviews the request.  When a sentence is commuted, the inmate is not declared innocent of the crime for which he was incarcerated.  Rather, the sentence is merely cut off.  However, once the inmate is released, they are still subject to the civil disabilities that come along with being a convicted felon, such as not being able to sit on a jury or vote.  When a commutation takes place, the person is typically still incarcerated.

Pardons, on the other hand, include the removal of such civil disabilities and generally are granted after a convicted felon has finished serving their time.  Pardons, like commutations, do not declare the person innocent of the crime for which they were incarcerated.

Still, there are limits on what types of sentences a president can commute.  Presidents can commute federal sentences, but they cannot grant commutations or pardons for any state-level convictions.  For state-level convictions, governors or state boards review clemency requests depending on the specific state’s policies.

Presidential commutations have been exceedingly rare, especially in the past few decades.  After July 13, President Obama has commuted more sentences than any president since Lyndon B. Johnson, who commuted 226 sentences during his presidency.  He has also now commuted more sentences than the four preceding presidents (Presidents George W. Bush, Clinton, George H. W. Bush, and Regan) combined.  The 46 commutations more than doubled the number he has granted since taking office, as he had previously granted 43 commutations and 64 pardons. 

You will also influence, through your example, the possibility that others in your circumstances get their own second chance in the future.

In addition to granting the commutations, President Obama also sent a personal letter to each of the 46 inmates whose sentences were commuted.  In a letter to Jerry Allen Bailey of Charlotte, N.C., President Obama wrote:

I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around.  Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity.  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.

But remember that you have the capacity to make good choices.  By doing so, you will affect not only your life, but those close to you.  You will also influence, through your example, the possibility that others in your circumstances get their own second chance in the future.

I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong, and change your life for the better.

Bailey was convicted for conspiracy to violate narcotics laws (crack) in the Western District of North Carolina on April 2, 1996.  He was sentenced to 360 months’ imprisonment (30 years) and 10 years’ supervised release.  Bailey was one of four inmates from North Carolina to have their sentences commuted.  Others from North Carolina include: John L Houston Brower, of Carthage, N.C., who was sentenced to life for distributing cocaine base (crack); Telisha Rachette Watkins, of Charlotte, N.C., who was sentenced to 240 months (20 years) for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine and cocaine base (crack); and James Rufus Woods, of Leasburg, N.C., who was sentenced to life for possession with intent to distribute cocaine base (crack).  Bailey’s sentence, like the other 45 prisoners whose sentences were commuted, will officially expire on November 10, 2015.

“I believe that at its heart American is a nation of second chances,” President Obama said in the video. “And I believe these folks deserve their second chance.”   Bailey and the other 45 inmates now have their second chance and hopefully they will take full advantage of it.

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About Rachel Goodling, Senior Staff Writer (17 Articles)
Rachel Goodling is a 2016 graduate and served as a Senior Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. She is originally from Cary, North Carolina and graduated from Appalachian State University in 2012 with a Bachelor of Science in Journalism and a Political Science minor. Following her first year of law school, Rachel worked at the NC Department of Justice, Medicaid Investigations Division as the criminal intern. Following her second year of law school, Rachel interned at North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services handling post-conviction appeals as well as civil claims made by inmates across North Carolina. Rachel was also on Campbell's National moot court team.
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