WASHINGTON ― President Barack Obama on Wednesday commuted the sentences of 214 federal prisoners who were incarcerated on drug charges. The White House said the announcement meant Obama had commuted 562 sentences, more than the past nine presidents combined.
Of that group, 67 had been given life sentences, meaning that up until Wednesday they were living behind bars believing they would die there.
As part of the Obama administration’s clemency initiative, the president had shortened the sentences of dozens of individuals in 2016, including in March and in June. The White House said the 214 number was the highest number of commutations announced in a single day since at least 1900, according to Buzzfeed News. Obama has now commuted more sentences than any president since Calvin Coolidge.
Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates said the announcement was “yet another step in the administration’s efforts to restore proportionality to unnecessarily long drug sentences,” and that the president had already doubled the number of commutations granted in all of 2015.
“But we are not done yet, and we expect that many more men and women will be given a second chance through the Clemency Initiative,” Yates said.
While the number of commutations granted during the Obama administration are historic, many advocates had hoped that thousands of individuals would be granted clemency under the initiative, which is aimed at shortening lengthy drug sentences that were often a result of federal mandatory minimums. Former Attorney General Eric Holder has said he expected as many as 10,000 prisoners to be granted clemency. Rachel Barkow, a New York University professor, told The Huffington Post that around 1,500 federal prisoners met the criteria that the Obama administration laid out for the initiative.
The Clemency Project, an outside initiative that helps screen federal prisoners applying for a presidential commutation and submits applications to the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney, represented 118 of the applicants who had their sentences commuted on Wednesday. Many of the individuals granted clemency on Wednesday are now scheduled for release in December 2016, and others will gain their freedom in August 2018. Additional individuals granted clemency on Wednesday had lengthy sentences shortened, but will not be getting out for many years. An individual sentenced to life in prison in 2009 for intending to distribute thousands of kilograms of marijuana, for example, had his sentence reduced to 30 years.
“With less than six months remaining in President Obama’s term, I know that today’s action will bring hope to so many worthy individuals and their incredible and heroic pro bono attorneys from across the country awaiting a decision by the President on their clemency petitions,” said Cynthia W. Roseberry, who serves as project manager for the Clemency Project.
Mark Osler, a law professor at St. Thomas University who helped organize a letter calling on the administration to speed up the clemency process, called on Obama to “break the bureaucratic logjam” that is holding up the review of clemency application. “These non-violent offenders have been promised a full review and relief, and they deserve nothing less. We again urge the president to speed up his administration’s review of the petitions it has received and to consider whether there are structural changes to the process that would ensure justice is done for every worthy petitioner.”
“Many people will use words today like leniency and mercy,” said Kevin Ring, who serves as vice president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “But what really happened is that a group of fellow citizens finally got the punishment they deserved. Not less, but, at long last, not more.”
Learning they’ve gained their freedom is an extremely emotional experience for federal prisoners, especially those who had expected to die behind bars, as The Huffington Post reported in June:
Jason Hernandez, whose life sentence was commuted in 2013, told HuffPost that he’d been worried he’d find out a family member had died when he was summoned to the warden’s office. Instead, he was told the good news.
“I started crying right there, I started shaking,” Hernandez said. “I still couldn’t believe it. I asked, could you show me on the computer where it says this, because maybe somebody is playing a hoax on us, on you? I said, I don’t think this is true. The lady looked it up, and it said I had 20 years. I had a release date.”
But Hernandez had expected the moment to be more joyful. He had imagined jumping, hollering, dancing and singing. In reality, his heart raced. He had trouble breathing. Guilt sank in.
“There’s more inmates like me, probably more deserving than me, who didn’t believe that such things could happen,” Hernandez said. “When I received my reduction, I couldn’t even look at the guys no more, I just felt bad for them. I couldn’t look at them in the eyes. I told them that, look, when I get out there, I’m not going to stop fighting, I’m going to continue doing what I’m doing.”
When they’re released, former prisoners have to adjust to a world that looks very different from the one they left.
Stephanie George, who was sentenced to life in prison in a drug case, said she was so confused by Facebook that she set up five different accounts, not realizing that she was creating an entirely new page each time and not just signing in. Norman Brown, whose life sentence was commuted last summer, joked that he was used to cellphones “as big as computers” when he was first arrested.
Reynolds Wintersmith, who was sentenced to life in prison on a crack charge when he was still a teenager, said he was amazed to see how many people were staring at their smartphones on the street. “You know how much you missing?” he asked.