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President Barack Obama signs commutation letters in the Oval Office, March 31, 2015. (Photo: Pete Souza/White House/Public Domain)

Obama Grants Clemency to 46 Drug Offenders, But Thousands Turned Away

Rights campaigners say commutations are important but fall short of the deep change needed

Sarah Lazare

President Barack Obama announced Monday that he is commuting the sentences of 46 people incarcerated for federal drug convictions, prompting a lukewarm response from rights campaigners, who say the small act of clemency is vital for the people impacted—but a far cry from the deep change needed.

The president commuted all 46 sentences to expire on November 10, with the full list of people granted clemency available here.

Obama said in a video statement: "These men and women were not hardened criminals, but the overwhelming majority had been sentenced to at least 20 years. Fourteen of them had been sentenced to life for nonviolent drug offenses so their punishments didn't fit the crime."

"I believe that America, at its heart, is a nation of second chances," he continued, "and I believe these folks deserve their second chance."

The president's statement brings the total number of commutations under his watch to 89—more pardons than any other president since Lyndon B. Johnson, who commuted 226 sentences.

However, the commutations fall well short of the thousands the administration predicted when the president last year unrolled a program to release people locked up on nonviolent drug charges as a result of unfair sentencing laws. Since the announcement, 35,000 people have applied for early release, Reuters reports.

But the president has has denied thousands of those applications.

"He's been unusually stingy—he's a clemency Grinch," said Douglas Berman, an Ohio State law professor who has studied presidential pardons, in an interview with Yahoo News.

This point was also acknowledged in a letter published Monday by the White House in which Obama addressed Jerry Allen Bailey, a man currently incarcerated at Jesup prison in Georgia for crack cocaine charges. "I wanted to personally inform you that I will be granting your application for commutation," wrote Obama. "Thousands of individuals applied for commutation, and only a fraction were approved."

The commuted sentences represent a small fraction of the over 95,000 people incarcerated in federal prisons for drug offenses and an even smaller percentage of the total number of people locked up. With 2.23 million people currently held in U.S. prisons and jails, America is by far the biggest jailer in the world—accounting for only 5 percent of the global population but 25 percent of the number of people incarcerated.

Mohamed Shehk, media and communications coordinator for prison abolition organization Critical Resistance, told Common Dreams that real justice must take all of these people into account.

"The war on drugs is one part of the prison industrial complex that is clearly a large scale attack on poor and black and brown people," said Shehk. "By using the language of 'hardened criminals' to justify sentences, Obama is demonizing those locked up for non-drug offenses. We support people getting out of prison, but we don't think or believe it has to happen by demonizing another class of prisoners."

Obama's clemency announcement came just days before he is slated to tour El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma, which will make him the first sitting U.S. president to visit a prison. Further, Obama is scheduled to speak Tuesday at the NAACP national convention in Philadelphia, where he is expected to address the unjust incarceration of African Americans.

Shehk emphasized that now is a critical time to demand real solutions: "We would want this to lead to actual pathways for people to get out, a reduction in prison spending, a halt to prison expansion, and an investment in reentry programs."

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