President Obama, who during his first term commuted exactly one sentence, has picked up the pace recently. As of July, he had granted early releases to a total of 89 prisoners.
Last year the Justice Department signaled a new openness to clemency petitions, laying out criteria for the sort of applications the president wanted to see. An unnamed "senior administration official" told Yahoo! News the new guidelines could result in commutations for "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of federal prisoners by the end of Obama's second term.
The president will have to try harder if he wants to reach that goal. An estimated 8,800 prisoners could benefit just from retroactive application of the shorter crack cocaine sentences that Congress approved in 2010. They are serving terms that pretty much everyone, including the president, now considers unjust.
Of the 30,000 prisoners who have contacted the Clemency Project—a joint effort by the American Bar Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and Families Against Mandatory Minimums—since April 2014, some 13,000 had been screened out as of July because they did not meet the government's criteria. The project had sent the Justice Department about 50 applications, eight of which had been granted.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Room to Improve".