President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 46 federal drug offenders Monday. In his first term, Obama issued one meager commutation; he was arguably the stingiest modern president when it came to the exercise of his pardon authority. Now, White House spokesman Josh Earnest noted, the president has issued 89 commutations -- more than the previous four presidents combined.
Among the 46 commutation recipients, 14 were serving life sentences for nonviolent crimes. That's why the president had to act. The war on drugs distorted the criminal justice system so completely over the past few decades that, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, 42 percent of life sentences imposed in federal courts in 2013 were for drug offenses -- as opposed to 12 percent for murder.
As a younger candidate, Obama had been highly critical of federal mandatory minimum sentences. Critics of the war on drugs had expected Obama to use his unfettered pardon power granted in the U.S. Constitution to commute the sentences of nonviolent offenders serving decades for their small-fish roles in the drug trade. After all, Congress could not stop him.
Instead, the president signed the Fair Sentencing Act, a compromise bill to reduce the disparity of crack cocaine to powder cocaine sentences in 2010 -- and asked Congress to pass further reforms.
In 2014, then-Deputy Attorney General James Cole announced an initiative to grant commutations to nonviolent inmates who had served more than a decade in prison, had good conduct records and would not have received such long prison terms under today's sentencing terms. This big batch of commutations establishes that the administration can do more than just talk.
PardonPower blogger P.S. Ruckman is disappointed that it took 6 1/2 years for Obama to act. He sees all the commutations that could have been. "Obama to Blaze Past Franklin Pierce," read his blog's headline on Obama's moving from eighth place to ninth on his list of the 10 least merciful presidents. Still, Ruckman is impressed with how it is being done. So many presidential pardons and commutations in the past two decades, he told me, reflected what looked like "random acts of mercy"; they were "idiosyncratic." Monday's commutations, on the other hand, are generally in sync with pronounced policy positions. They're smart. Ruckman expects to see regular commutations now.
Will one of these 46 turn into a Willie Horton -- the convicted murderer who raped a woman while wrongly furloughed from a Massachusetts prison, thereby undermining the 1988 presidential hopes of then-Gov. Michael Dukakis? There is no reason to believe it, said Julie Stewart of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, who noted, "Most people who go to federal prison are not violent." The presidential commutation recipients to whom Stewart has talked are eager to prove that the trust the president put in them was well-placed.
The White House likes to point out that criminal justice reform has become a bipartisan cause. It should be. There is no justice in sending people to prison for decades, even life, for nonviolent offenses.