Jail cellAdam Jones PhDBetter late than never, I guess. And better baby steps than no steps at all. That's a fair reaction to the White House's announcement that President Obama commuted the sentences of eight men and women who each had served more than 15 years in prison on drug charges, and had many more years to go—up to and including life sentences. He also pardoned 13 people convicted on a variety of charges, including drugs, theft, and mail fraud. As the American Civil Liberties Union pointed out in response, "Prior to today’s announcement, Obama had only pardoned 39 people and commuted only one sentence, which is the fewest by any president in recent history."

The White House announcement of the commutations points to the draconian nature of the sentences in the cases:

Three years ago, I signed the bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act, which dramatically narrowed the disparity between penalties for crack and powder cocaine offenses.  This law began to right a decades-old injustice, but for thousands of inmates, it came too late.  If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society.  Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year. 

Today, I am commuting the prison terms of eight men and women who were sentenced under an unfair system.  Each of them has served more than 15 years in prison.  In several cases, the sentencing judges expressed frustration that the law at the time did not allow them to issue punishments that more appropriately fit the crime.

This is all welcome news, but the ACLU response puts it in context as an aberration—however welcome—for an administration that has enthusiastically prosecuted drug prohibition and helped to militarize local police departments. As Reason's Jacob Sullum points out, Obama administration moderation on the War on Drugs has largely been rhetorical. Obama's drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske "thinks enlightenment in this area means forcing drug users into 'treatment' by threatening them with jail rather than sending them directly to jail. He needs the heavy hand of the state not only to impose treatment on recalcitrant drug users but to imprison people who supply them with the drugs they want."

That said, the eight people whose sentences have been commuted, and the 13 who received full pardons, have reason to be thankful, even if thousands more languish behind bars. Those still imprisoned are there not for violating the rights of others, but for consuming, or producing, or trading in, intoxicants that government officials don't like.

The full list of commutations and pardons is here.