Obama's Mercy

Federal commutations


President Barack Obama announced in August that another crop of citizens in federal prison for drug-related crimes would receive clemency and be released earlier than their sentences demanded.

The new group of 214 puts the total number who have received mercy from the administration at 562. Many of the prisoners had received very hard—sometimes life—sentences, mostly for crimes involving drug trafficking. Some had the hammer brought down on them because their crimes involved crack instead of powder cocaine. Federal sentencing laws have been changed so that the disparity of sentences between the two versions of the drug was reduced, but the punishment reductions were not always made retroactive.

Many of the beneficiaries of these latest commutations will be released in December. The administration has promoted the fact that they've commuted more sentences than previous administrations, but there are likely thousands more federal prisoners who qualify for mercy under guidelines set up by the Department of Justice in 2014.

How many of those might receive commutations by the time Obama's term comes to an end is uncertain. Volunteer lawyers who have offered up their services to help inmates have complained that the process to request commutation from the Department of Justice is extremely bureaucratic, and that the volunteers were not given the necessary resources to properly push applications through.