After spending years in prison for non-violent crack cocaine related charges, 8 federal inmates had their sentences commuted on Thursday by President Barack Obama, who criticized an "unfair system."
The inmates faced harsh prison sentences for minor offenses. Six faced life behind bars and all had already spent at least 15 years in prison.
As the L.A. Times explains, "Until 2010, when Congress approved a new sentencing law, those convicted of possessing crack cocaine were subject to mandatory sentences far higher than those given to people possessing the powder form of the drug."
Prior to the Fair Sentencing act, which was signed in 2010, there existed a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. The Fair Sentencing act reduced the disparity to 18:1. And as prisoners' rights advocates have noted, crack cocaine sentencing has presented a "particularly egregious case" of policies that have made "African Americans disproportionately sentenced to much lengthier terms."
While the act "began to right a decades-old injustice...for thousands of inmates, it came too late," Obama said in a statement offering his reasoning for the commutations. "If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society."
While 8 of those inmates will now walk free, thousands more remain behind bars who were sentenced before the act was passed, serving life without parole for drug, property and other nonviolent crimes, according to a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union.
"The president took the enormous step of giving hope and new life to people who were doomed to die behind bars for nonviolent offenses," said Vanita Gupta, the deputy legal director of the ACLU. "Of course, we know there are thousands who are in similar situations in prison, and so now we really need to do the work to change the laws around the country to prevent these sorts of extreme sentences from taking place on our soil."
"Considering in his first five years in office he granted only one commutation, I suppose we should be thrilled that he granted eight," said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "But considering the number of people in prison who are serving excessive sentences, this is a drop in the bucket."
“Even if President Obama used his clemency power energetically, which he has not, he simply wouldn’t be able to commute every excessive sentence," Stewart stated in a press release. "The sentencing laws themselves are the problem. Congress needs to get moving and pass mandatory minimums sentencing reforms that save the worst prison terms for the worst offenders. We hope there will be even more commutations today, but it’s only Congress that can prevent the need for commutations tomorrow.”
Prior to Thursday's announcement, the Obama administration had only pardoned 39 people and commuted only one sentence—the fewest by any president in recent history.
Jennifer Turner, Human Rights Researcher with the American Civil Liberties Union, spoke to Democracy Now! Friday, and called for more reforms to drug laws and for state governors to pardon and commute prisoners facing similar hardships.