Obama commutes the prison sentences of 46 drug offenders
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President Obama on Monday commuted the prison sentences of 46 people convicted of drug crimes, the most sweeping use of his executive power to date to address what many say are unfair sentences for nonviolent offenders.

"I believe, at its heart, America is a nation of second chances," Obama said in a video posted to the White House’s Facebook page. "I believe these folks deserve their second chance."

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Obama announced his actions as his administration is sharpening its focus on reforming the criminal justice system. Part of that push is allowing inmates convicted of drug crimes under previous, tougher federal sentencing guidelines to seek clemency.

The vast majority of the offenders granted relief on Monday were convicted for crimes involving types of cocaine; 14 were sentenced to life. Obama said almost everyone granted the commutations would already have been released from prison had they been sentenced under today's guidelines.

“Their punishments didn’t fit the crimes,” he said.  

After the latest commutations were announced, the White House posted a letter that Obama sent to Jerry Bailey, one of the prisoners granted clemency.

“I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around,” Obama wrote to Bailey, who was held at a prison in Jesup, Ga. “Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity.”

The commutations coincide with a new White House push aimed at pressuring Congress to take action on criminal justice reform legislation.

On Thursday, Obama will become the first sitting president to visit a federal prison when he travels to the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma.

The prison visit will come on the heels of a speech Tuesday at the NAACP’s national conference in Philadelphia, where Obama is expected to call for lower mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders.

Advocates praised the commutations but called on the president to focus his attention on congressional action.

“While today’s actions are a positive step in the right direction, there is still much more that needs to be done through bipartisan reforms on important issues like federal sentencing, prison reform, collateral consequences, re-entry, and over-criminalization,” said Christine Leonard, executive director of the Coalition for Public Safety, a group that includes Koch Industries, the company run by conservative donors Charles and David Koch, and the ACLU.

Since the administration issued a call for inmates to seek clemency last year, more than 30,000 have applied, according to The New York Times.

The clemency initiative allows low-level, nonviolent offenders who have spent at least a decade in prison to ask for release if they can prove they would have likely received a lower sentence under current guidelines.

Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates called the commutations “another sign of our commitment to correcting these inequities.”

“We will continue to recommend to the President appropriate candidates for clemency, and we will continue to work with Congress on recalibrating our sentencing laws for non-violent drug offenders,” she said in a statement.

But the complex review process has been slow to produce results. Including Monday’s announcement, Obama has commuted the sentences of 89 inmates during his presidency, spokesman Josh Earnest said.

But the White House sought to highlight the groundbreaking nature of the announcement, noting it is the most commutations issued in a single day since the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson.

Obama has also commuted sentences for more inmates than the last four presidents combined, the White House said.

Last updated at 4:17 p.m.