WASHINGTON ― President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 98 federal prisoners on Thursday, meaning he has shortened the sentences of 872 individuals over the course of his presidency.
The individuals granted clemency on Thursday were imprisoned for drug crimes. Dozens of them had been sentenced to life imprisonment, meaning they would have died behind bars without Obama’s intervention.
The president reduced the sentences of 102 inmates earlier this month, which brought his total clemency number to 774. He had granted clemency to 214 federal prisoners in early August and another 111 inmates in late August, shortening the sentences of 325 people in a single month. With Thursday’s announcement, he has now commuted 200 sentences in the month of October.
Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said Thursday’s announcement was “part of our ongoing commitment to bring fairness” to the criminal justice system.
“These grants reflect the Department’s accelerated progress in prioritizing and reviewing petitions that fit the President’s Clemency Initiative. As we’ve said before, the Department of Justice remains committed to reviewing and providing a recommendation on every petition submitted by August 31 of this year that involves a drug crime. And we will continue to prioritize the review any drug related petitions that have been submitted since that time,” Yates said.
For those who were neither denied, nor granted mercy, time is running out. Each passing day brings heightened desperation and anxiety. Jessica Jackson Sloan, national director of #cut50
Jessica Jackson Sloan, national director of #cut50, a criminal justice reform initiative that seeks to reduce the incarcerated population in the U.S. by 50 percent over a decade, applauded Obama’s announcement but said it was “imperative” that he keep the promise he made to those “serving unjust and overly harsh sentences” for drug offenses.
“While today’s announcement means some families will be made whole, many more petitioners were denied ― the vast majority denied with no explanation,” Sloan said. “The clemency process is sorely lacking in transparency ― with little regard for the emotional impact these decisions have on individuals and their families. For those who were neither denied, nor granted mercy, time is running out. Each passing day brings heightened desperation and anxiety. Some are beginning to lose hope as the clock continues to tick.”
As The Huffington Post has reported, the Obama administration’s clemency initiative has fallen short of expectations:
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.
Still, Thursday’s announcement was huge for federal prisoners lucky enough to be granted their freedom, especially those who had expected to die in prison. HuffPost reported on how some of them reacted 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.
Brittany K. Byrd, campaign manager for #cut50, hoped the announcement was a sign of more movement in the final months of Obama’s presidency.
“I can only hope that there’s more to come, because there are so many more people that are very deserving,” Byrd said. “It was a wonderful day for those 98 and their families, and I’m super happy about that, but there are a lot more to go. But it is hopeful.”
Many of those granted clemency on Thursday are now scheduled to be released in 2017 and 2018, but others have additional years left on their sentences. For example, one man’s 2008 life sentence was shortened to 30 years in prison, meaning he still has two decades left until his release.