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Obama commutes 'unjust' drug sentences

  • Article by: Charlie Savage
  • New York Times
  • December 19, 2013 - 11:36 PM

– President Obama, expanding his push to curtail severe penalties in drug cases, on Thursday commuted the sentences of eight federal inmates who were convicted of crack cocaine offenses. Each inmate has been imprisoned for at least 15 years, and six had been sentenced to life in prison.

It was the first time retroactive relief was provided to a group of inmates who would most likely have received significantly shorter terms had they been sentenced under current drug laws, sentencing rules and charging policies. Most will be released in 120 days.

The commutations opened a major new front in the administration’s efforts to curb soaring taxpayer spending on prisons and to help correct what it has portrayed as inequality in the justice system.

In a statement, Obama said that each of the eight men and women had been sentenced under what is now recognized as an “unfair system,” including a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses that was significantly reduced by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.

The commutations have come during a pendulum swing away from stringent mandatory minimum sentencing laws enacted a generation ago amid the crack epidemic. The policies fueled an 800 percent increase in the number of prisoners in the United States. They also carried a racial charge: Offenses involving crack, which was disproportionately prevalent in impoverished black communities, carried far more severe penalties than those for powder cocaine, favored by affluent white users.

According to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, about 8,800 federal inmates are serving time for crack offenses committed before Congress reduced mandatory minimum sentences in the 2010 law.

The commutation recipients included Clarence Aaron of Mobile, Ala., who was sentenced to three life terms for his role in a 1993 drug deal, when he was 22. His case has been taken up by civil rights groups and congressional critics of severe sentencing for nonviolent drug offenses.

Rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which had profiled several of the recipients in a recent report on nonviolent offenders serving life sentences, greeted the announcement with praise and calls for additional efforts.

Reaction among conservatives, who in states like Texas and South Carolina have been at the forefront of efforts to reduce the mass incarceration of nonviolent offenders, was muted. The top Republicans on the House and Senate Judiciary Committees declined to comment.

The commutation recipients also included Reynolds Wintersmith, of Rockford, Ill., who was 17 in 1994 when he was sentenced to life in prison for dealing crack, and Stephanie George, of Pensacola, Fla., who received a life sentence in 1997, when she was 27, for hiding a boyfriend’s stash of crack in a box in her house. In both cases, the judges criticized the mandatory sentences, calling them unjust.

Obama, who has made relatively little use of his constitutional clemency powers to forgive offenses or reduce sentences, also pardoned 13 people who completed their sentences long ago. Those cases involved mostly minor offenses, in line with his previous pardons.

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