Today President Obama announced that 46 non-violent drug offenders will have their sentences commuted and be released this year. The announcement comes ahead of President Obama's speech on sentencing reform later this week from a prison in Oklahoma.
The vast majority of the offenders were convicted of cocaine offenses, along with a handful of marijuana cases and some general "controlled substance" violations. The lowest initial sentence among the 46 was 15 years, while several received life sentences. In issuing the commutations the White House noted that, due to recent sentencing reforms, these sentences are out of step with the sentences the offenders would receive for the same violations today:
These unduly harsh sentences are one of the reasons the President is committed to using all the tools at his disposal to remedy unfairness in our criminal justice system. Today, he is continuing this effort by granting clemency to 46 men and women, nearly all of whom would have already served their time and returned to society if they were convicted of the exact same crime today.
The list of recipients, along with their offenses, can be found here.
It should go without saying that sentences ranging from 15 years to life in prison for non-violent drug offenses are beyond the pale, and these commutations are certainly welcome. But without substantial front-end criminal justice reforms, injustices like this will continue to happen. Tens of thousands of non-violent drug offenders remain in federal prison. Nearly half of federal prisoners were convicted of drug offenses. The United States has the world's highest incarceration rate, the largest prison population, and the most expensive penal system, and the needless incarceration of non-violent offenders is a primary reason for those dubious honors.
Pardons and commutations are often the very last gasp for an inmate after years or decades of incarceration, and for practical and political reasons only a small fraction of offenders can ever hope to receive one. Substantive front-end reforms to our criminal laws will spare thousands of non-violent people from ever having to hope for a pardon or commutation.
Libertarians have been fighting for front-end criminal justice reforms for decades, and it's high time for the rest of the country to catch up. These commutations are a step in the right direction, but the federal government’s draconian policies toward non-violent offenders remain.
Click the links for more of Cato's work on overcriminalization, the drug war, and mandatory minimum sentencing.