Obama Commutes Eight Insanely Long Drug Sentences; Thousands More To Go


Jail cell
Adam Jones PhD

Better 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.

NEXT: Judge Vacates Conviction in Poisoning Death

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  1. To the thousands still languishing behind bars:

    If you like your sentence you can keep it.

  2. Good. Can he just do a blanket commutation of all people whose drug sentences are out of whack with the Fair Sentencing Act (which, to be clear, I do not think makes things nearly as “fair” as they should be but… is a step in the right direction)? I do not think there is anything necessarily stopping him from doing so but I’m sure the “law and order” types in Congress will have a total fit.

    1. He’s shown little regard for Congress, so I doubt that’s it. I honestly don’t know why he doesn’t want to use the pardon power when he’s been thrilled to wield every other tool in the executive branch.

  3. He doesn’t want to be outdone by the Russians again!

    The amnesty, to mark the anniversary of the adoption of Russia’s post-Communist constitution in 1993, will be applied to thousands of Russian prisoners, the agency reported.


    1. It honestly wouldn’t surprise me if that’s why he did it. The Obama/Putin thing is one of the more ridiculous “great leader” competitions I’ve ever seen (partially for its childishness), and Obama has definitely been “losing” (not really sure what “winning” would be).

    2. I have to admit, I’m enjoying the mutual fuck-you gestures between Obama and Putin. Sending two gay athletes to head up the US Sochi contingent was amusing. And the Syrian thing kept us from having direct involvement there.

      1. Are you counting Brian Boitano? Because he just came out. To nobody’s surprise.

        1. What? A male figure skater is gay? My worldview is shattered.

          I’d only previously heard of Billie Jean King and Caitlin somebody.

          1. If only he’d had the courage to admit he’s been secretly Canadian this whole time.

  4. Three years ago, I signed the bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act…

    He’s just been really busy since then. Besides, it’s not like those prisoners were going anywhere, right?

    Still, way to finally do something good, Obama.

    1. Ruin healthcare for 360,000,000 people, commute 8 sentences. Easy come, easy go.

  5. I agree with Tuccille: Better late than never, better some than none at all. This isn’t the robust opposition to the War on Drugs that many people thought they were voting for when they pulled the lever for Obama, but hey, when the guy does something right, we should acknowledge it. So I will not criticize, but instead congratulate Mr. Obama and encourage him to give us more like this in the last years of his Presidency.

  6. He’s having a tough year, he’s gotta do something. This is the EXACT equivalent of Putin releasing some political prisoners as the Olympics approaches.

  7. And what’s the position of America’s first black president on Mumia?

    1. It is precisely this:

      “Fry Mumia!”

  8. And Im guessing they were all black!


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