Obama commutes sentences of 61 drug offenders

Obama commutes sentences of 61 drug offenders
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President Obama commuted the sentences of 61 federal prisoners convicted of drug crimes, the White House announced Wednesday. 
 
Twenty-one of the inmates were serving life sentences, mostly for crack- and cocaine-related offenses. A majority of the inmates will be freed July 28, but some will be released March 30 of next year. 
 
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“The power to grant pardons and commutations … embodies the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance after having made a mistake in their lives that led to a conviction under our laws,” Obama wrote in a letter to the inmates.
 
It’s the first major round of commutations for drug offenders the White House announced this year. 
 
Obama has commuted the sentences of 248 people during his time in office, more than the previous six presidents combined, according to the White House. 
 
Obama plans to meet Wednesday afternoon with former inmates whose sentences were previously commuted by him and past presidents, an event that could draw attention to an issue that has faded to the background in the midst of the 2016 presidential campaign. 
 
The people will discuss with Obama their experiences reentering society and their thoughts on how the process can be strengthened to better ease the transition for ex-convicts. 
 
White House counsel Neil Eggleston wrote in a blog post that clemency is a “tool of last resort” and that lasting reform is needed. 
 
“Clemency of individual cases alone cannot fix decades of overly punitive sentencing policies,” he wrote. “Broader criminal justice reform can truly bring justice to the many thousands of people behind bars serving unduly harsh and outdated sentences.”
 
Reducing sentences for non-violent drug offenders is the centerpiece of Obama’s criminal-justice reform plan. 
 
Congress is currently debating bipartisan sentencing reform legislation, but election-year politics have slowed down the push on Capitol Hill. It’s not clear when a vote will be held. 
 
Obama is encouraged, however, that support still exists for the legislation in both parties and on both sides of Capitol Hill, according to White House press secretary Josh Earnest.

“We continue to be cautiously optimistic we can get that done, even in an election year,” Earnest told reporters.

In the meantime, Obama has turned to using commutations to advance his goal. A vast majority of the inmates whose sentences were commuted were not convicted of violent crimes, although some committed firearms-related offenses. 
 
The pace is expected to pick up during Obama’s final year in office. 
 
“Throughout the remainder of his time in office, the president is committed to continuing to issue more grants of clemency as well as to strengthening rehabilitation programs,” Eggleston wrote.
 
- This story was updated at 1:16 p.m.