President Obama commuted sentences on Tuesday for 22 drug offenders, including eight serving life sentences, doubling the total number of commutations issued during his time in office. Calling their sentences the product of an “outdated” system, the White House acknowledged that defendants convicted of the same crimes under current law would likely face far lighter punishment. From the Huffington Post:
Tuesday’s announcement marks the beginning of a more aggressive approach on clemency from the White House, which has faced persistent criticism for being slow to grant pardons and commutations. Until Tuesday, Obama had only commuted the sentences of 21 people and pardoned 64, out of thousands of applications received.
The Justice Department expanded its criteria for clemency applicants last year, prioritizing defendants who would have likely been given a shorter prison term had they been sentenced today and who have served at least 10 years behind bars, have had good conduct in prison, have no significant ties to criminal enterprises and have no history of violence or significant criminal history.
When President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, the disparity in sentences mandated for crimes involving powdered cocaine and crack was dramatically reduced. Advocates of reform have continued to press for the law to be made fully retroactive and support is slowly growing in both parties for congressional action to free inmates with sentences like those the president commuted today, which the White House describes as “years—in some cases more than a decade—longer than individuals convicted today of the same crime.”
The Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015, currently under consideration by the Judiciary Committees in the House and Senate, would add “clarification” to allow all prisoners whose crimes would bring lighter sentences under the Fair Sentencing Act to petition for a reduction in prison time. The bills have a decidedly bipartisan list of supporters, with Ted Cruz, Cory Booker, Rand Paul, and Dick Durbin co-sponsoring the Senate version.
Still, some Republicans are skeptical. But GOP Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, a vocal advocate for drug sentencing reform, could have the key to getting them on board: Say “socialism.” Appearing at an event on sentencing reform held in February by Generation Opportunity, a libertarian youth organization, Massie described the approach he uses to lobby conservatives in favor of more lenient drug sentencing: It’s not conservative to spend public resources keeping non-violent offenders locked up. When you’re paying all of an inmate’s living expenses and getting no public benefit, Massie says, that’s “socialism with restrained mobility.”