President Barack Obama meets with a group of mothers to discuss health care reform, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., December 18, 2013.
Olivier Douliery/Pool

Why Obama’s commutations matter

As long-time readers may recall, sentencing disparities in cocaine convictions have been indefensible for too long. A racially charged 100-to-1 ratio established in 1986 – a person caught selling five grams of crack would face the same five-year mandatory minimum sentence as someone caught selling 500 grams of powder cocaine.
With this in mind, President Obama fought in support of the Fair Sentencing Act, and signed it into law in 2010. It doesn’t create sentencing parity, but it reduced the disparity to 18-to-1. The AP noted at the time that the bill marked “the first time in 40 years that Congress has repealed a mandatory minimum sentence.”
Three years later, Obama took another step forward, commuting the sentences of eight individuals convicted of crack cocaine offenses.
In a statement, Obama said the commutation “is an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness” and noted that he signed legislation in 2010 to narrow the disparity between penalties for crimes related to powder and crack cocaine. […]
“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 of inmates sentenced before the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act. “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.”
Obama also called on Congress to pass pending legislation that would make the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive for some offenders.
And that would make a lot of sense.
Also be sure to check out Adam Serwer’s terrific piece on Clarence Aaron – one of the eight commutations announced today – a non-violent drug offender sentenced to three life terms when he was 24 years old, who will now finally be freed after 20 years behind bars.
Related video:
The Rachel Maddow Show, 12/19/13, 11:53 PM ET

Obama commutations make drug law statement

Rachel Maddow reports on a rare set of pardons and commutations of prison sentences by President Obama in a gesture of criticism of unjust sentencing.

Drug Policy

Why Obama's commutations matter