Last year ended on a very positive note for several drug offenders in federal prison. Late in 2014, President Obama commuted the sentences of eight inmates serving the equivalent of life behind bars for relatively minor drug crimes.
In all, the president granted clemency to 20 federal prisoners Dec. 17, cutting their sentences short. Twelve of the inmates received full pardons, while eight received commutations.
All the prisoners should be freed this year. Four of them were serving effective life sentences for non-violent drug offenses, including marijuana cultivation.
“If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society,” Obama said in a written statement. “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.”
Reforming criminal justice law
The prisoners’ sentences were cut short as part of the Clemency Initiative, a program unveiled by the Department of Justice last spring. The initiative is a public effort to reform criminal justice law that encourages inmates to petition for clemency.
The Clemency Initiative applies to inmates serving sentences that would have been shorter if they were convicted under today’s laws. They must be low-level, non-violent offenders without significant ties to organized crime, they must serve at least 10 years of their sentences, they must not have a substantial criminal history, they must behave in prison, and they must have no history of violence in or out of prison.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole said the inmates’ “punishments did not fit their crimes, and sentencing laws and policies have since been updated to ensure more fairness for low-level offenders. All eight of these individuals meet the criteria I laid out under the President’s direction when I announced the Clemency Initiative in April.”
Effort to free non-violent drug offenders
The pardons and commutations came amid a quiet but rapidly growing effort to reform drug sentencing laws and free non-violent drug offenders from long-term incarceration.
America’s jails and prisons currently hold more than 2 million inmates, more than any other country – and more than any other country relative to the population. Most of them are there as part of the so-called war on drugs and the mandatory sentencing laws that came with it.
In recent years, prisons in California and elsewhere have been forced to release thousands of low-level inmates to make space for new prisoners.
One of the great hopes of the marijuana movement is that Americans might stop locking so many people away over harmless drug crimes. Or course, that would happen much faster if Obama were to support legalization.