Though his presidency is coming to a close, President Obama has held fast to his promise of sweeping criminal justice reforms via his initiative to commute the sentences of federal drug inmates nationwide.
On Tuesday, the president granted clemency to an additional 79 inmates, bringing his total number of commuted prisoners to over 1,000 — 1,023 to be exact, according to data from the Department of Justice. That’s more than the past 11 presidents combined, including George W. Bush, who commuted just 11 inmates, and Bill Clinton, who commuted 61.
A majority of the inmates granted early release by President Obama were locked up on nonviolent drug charges and sentenced under mandatory minimum drug laws. If tried under today’s laws, many of them would likely receive lighter prison sentences.
Most of Tuesday’s 79 clemency recipients are expected to be released sometime next year. Twenty of them were serving life behind bars, according to NBC News,
“At the heart of America is the idea that we’re all imperfect,” the president said in a statement. “We all make mistakes. We have to take responsibility and learn from those mistakes. And we as a society have to make sure that people who do take responsibility for their mistakes are able to earn a second chance to contribute to our communities and our country.
“It’s the right thing to do. It’s the smart thing to do.”
Earlier this year, the president granted clemency to 111 inmates and broke his previous single-day record when he commuted the sentences of 214 inmates in August, pardoning a total of 325 prisoners just that month, Atlanta Black Star reports.
Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and White House Counsel Neil Eggleston said over the past two years, with the help of the Justice Department, the president’s administration has been able to sift through thousands upon thousands of clemency applications and plan to continue doing so until Obama leaves office next year.
Due to the high volume of applicants, however, thousands of inmates are still waiting to hear if their clemency requests have been granted. According to The Atlantic, over 6,300 petitions were under review as of Aug. 31, when the Justice Department committed to examining all pending petitions before Jan. 20. DOJ officials ensured the department was on track to make recommendations on all of them before the president’s time is up.
“This is more than statistics,” Yates said of Obama’s commutations thus far. “There are 1,000 lives behind that number, 1,000 people who’ve been sentenced under unnecessarily harsh and outdated sentencing laws.”
For prisoners still on the waiting list, many are worried that president-elect Donald Trump, who touted himself as the “law and order” candidate, won’t pursue clemency or criminal justice reform as aggressively as Obama did. Under Trump, prisoners likely have limited opportunity for early release.
“We have two months left before the inauguration,” Obama said of his clemency initiative. “I anticipate we will keep going until the end.”