A staggering number of Americans are serving prison sentences far out of proportion with the severity of their actions. President Obama has promised to alter the landscape for people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes. He recently commuted the sentences of 61 such inmates. He has now stepped in to grant clemency in 248 cases, including many where the inmate was serving a life sentence.
While every commuted sentence is a step in the right direction, the criminal justice system is still in need of an overhaul. While President Obama and the Justice Department consider the 9,115 petitions for clemency still pending, countless more pass the time in overcrowded, dangerous prisons for nonviolent crimes. The system is not working properly when it takes the individual effort of the President to stop a miscarriage of justice.
Many of the clemency petitions are based on sentences handed down based on "mandatory-minimum" guidelines. One of the petitioners saw his request for clemency supported by the judge who sentenced him. Another was serving life without the possibility of parole for a single offense as a first-time, nonviolent offender. She had never even been arrested before the single incident which landed her the life sentence.
Sentencing guidelines changed more than 10 years ago. Since then, judges have had more discretion in the sentences they impose. That is not the same as saying sentencing is now fair. It is just less unfair than it was before 2005. It is still the case that people accused of drug crimes involving no acts of violence can be made to serve shockingly long terms in prison. Anyone accused of a drug crime should speak to a skilled defense attorney immediately.
Source: The Washington Post, "President Obama grants early release to 61 more federal drug offenders," by Sari Horwitz and Ann E. Marimow, 30 March 2016