Last week, President Obama commuted the sentences of 95 people incarcerated in federal prisons. Forty of these individuals were serving life sentences for a drug law violation.
The announcement more than doubles the number of commutations that President Obama has granted since he took the oath of office. President Obama should do more. Nearly 2,000 individuals are serving life in prison for drug related crimes. Thousands more remain incarcerated having been sentenced under unfair and outdated crack cocaine sentencing guidelines. The Fair Sentencing Act, passed by Congress in 2010, reduced the sentencing disparity for crack cocaine and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1 but was not made retroactive.
A commutation is a reduction of a person’s prison sentence. The United States Constitution gives the president the authority to issue commutations for anyone convicted of a federal crime. The same holds true for cases prosecuted in D.C. Superior Court. The President cannot commute a sentence imposed by a state court, instead most often the state’s constitution gives the state’s governor the authority to grant clemency or pardons.
A pardon is official forgiveness of a crime and includes restoration of civil rights, such as the right to vote or sit on a jury. Although it can be granted at any time, it is most often granted after a person has completed their sentence and maintained a record of good behavior for a period of time. The President granted two pardons on Friday.
Many barriers exist for people released from a period of incarceration. People with a felony conviction are barred from public housing and individuals with drug related felonies are ineligible for nutritional, housing and other low-income public assistance. Many potential pathways to careers are cut off by a felony record since employers often discriminate against individuals with a criminal record and professional licenses, such as barber and cosmetology and taxi-cab licenses can be denied to persons with a felony conviction. Overall, there is little meaningful assistance provided to individuals reintegrating back into their communities upon their release.
Congress should take action to reduce long prison sentences for non-violent offenses and apply the Fair Sentencing Act retroactively. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, spearheaded by Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA), includes reductions in mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, makes the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive, and expands prison programming and early release, among other things. A similar bill, championed by Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), was introduced in the House. Both bills have strong bipartisan support, and are awaiting floor action. Additionally, Congress should remove the ban on cash assistance and food stamp programs for people convicted of drug related crime. About half of states have already modified or opted out of the ban altogether.
No one should spend decades of their life imprisoned for drug related crimes. It is equally unjust that a lifetime of denied opportunities awaits a person who has just completed such a sentence. President Obama has said that he wants to restore balance to America’s drug policy; thousands of people are still serving mandatory minimum sentences for drug related crimes. President Obama has the power to free thousands of victims of failed drug war, restoring families and communities. I’m waiting for his actions to speak louder than his words.
Lindsey Lawson Battaglia is a policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.