By Justin Sink
President Obama on Thursday will commute the sentences of eight federal inmates sentenced to lengthy jail terms on crack cocaine offenses, as part of his administration's effort to combat what it sees as unfair and unduly harsh drug sentences.
According to the White House, each of the inmates has served more than 15 years in prison — many because of mandatory minimum penalties that required judges to impose the harsh penalties.
In a statement released Thursday by the White House, Obama called the sentences a "decades-old injustice."
“If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society,” he said. “Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year.”
In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, a law reducing the disparity between punishments for crack cocaine and powder cocaine possession and sale. The commutations represent the first time that the president has moved to provide relief to drug offenders who would have received a lesser penalty under the new law.
"For decades, America’s criminal justice system punished crack cocaine offenses far more harshly than powder cocaine offenses," a White House official said. "That disparity undermined the fundamental principle of fairness that is paramount to our criminal justice system. It also helped contribute to an expensive and ineffective overcrowding of our prisons — an area of bipartisan concern around the country."
The American Civil Liberties Union said that at least three of the prisoners were serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses. They include Reynolds Wintersmith, a first-time offender sentenced to life at age 20; Clarence Aron, sentenced as a 23-year-old college student with no priors to three life sentences for his participation in a drug deal; and Stephanie George, a single mother serving a life sentence for a minor role in a drug conspiracy.
ACLU deputy legal director Vanita Gupta heralded the commutations as "one important step toward undoing the damage that extreme sentencing has done to so many in our criminal justice system"
"We hope the president will continue to exercise his clemency powers and lend his support to systemic reform that will make our criminal justice system smarter, fairer, and more humane," Gupta said.
Earlier this year, Attorney General Eric Holder ordered U.S. attorneys to seek shorter sentences for drug crimes committed by criminals who do not have violent offenses, who did not use of a weapon while committing their crime and who did not sell drugs to children. Gang members were also not eligible for the shorter sentences.
“I am pleased to announce today that the department has issued new guidance to apply our updated charging policy not only to new matters but also to pending cases where the defendant was charged before the policy was issued but is still awaiting adjudication of guilt,” said Holder in remarks before the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual criminal justice forum.
“By reserving the most severe prison terms for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers or kingpins, we can better enhance public safety. We can increase our focus on proven strategies for deterrence and rehabilitation.”
The attorney general argued the move would save the government millions of dollars, while helping poor and minority communities where drug arrests had wreaked havoc.
The White House said that despite its efforts, the "whole problem" could only be solved through congressional action. The Senate Judiciary Committee is slated to consider bipartisan sentencing reform legislation next month.
"The best way to do that is for Congress to pass legislation like the bipartisan measures that are working their way through Congress," the White House official said.
—Pete Kasperowicz contributed.