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Amid calls for justice reform, Obama signs wave of commutations

President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of nearly 50 non-violent drug offenders on Monday, calling for further criminal justice reform efforts.

President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 46 inmates currently serving long prison terms for non-violent drug offenses, saying in a video released on Monday that their punishments didn’t fit their crimes.

“These men and women were not hardened criminals, but the overwhelming majority had been sentenced to at least 20 years, 14 of them had been sentenced to life for non-violent drug offenses,” Obama said. “If they’d been sentenced under today’s laws nearly all of them would have served their time.”

The commutations come a day before the president is scheduled to deliver a speech on criminal justice reform at the NAACP convention in Philadelphia, and ahead of a historic visit later this week to the El Reno Federal Correctional Facility outside of Oklahoma City to talk with officials and prisoners about the same topic. The visit will be the first by a sitting president to a federal prison.

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In his announcement on Monday, Obama said now is the time to push for bipartisan criminal justice reform.

“Over the last few years, a lot of people have become aware of the inequities in the criminal justice system,” Obama said. “Right now with our overall crime rate and incarceration rate both falling we are at a moment when some good people in both parties, Republican and Democrat, are coming together around ideas to make the system work smarter, make it work better and I’m determined to do my part.”

The list of prisoners who had their sentences commuted include individuals from across the country, many sentenced to decades or even life for distribution and conspiracy to distribute narcotics under harsh mandatory minimum sentences handed out en masse during the so-called war on drugs of the late-1980s and early 1990s.

The issue of criminal justice reform is not only about righting the errors of bad policy but also about fiscal responsibility. Each year, America spends about $80 billion in incarcerating people, many of whom are non-violent offenders swept up in the nation’s mammoth illegal drug trade. Had the prisoners on the president’s list of commutations been sentenced under today’s laws nearly all of them would have served their time and been released by now, Obama said.

“I believe that at its heart America is a nation of second chances and I believe these folks deserve their second chance,” he said. “I also believe there’s a lot more that we can do to restore the sense of fairness at the heart of our justice system and to make sure our tax dollars are well spent even as we are keeping our streets safe.”

Obama wrote a personal letter to each of the men and women receiving commutations.

In one of the letters, addressed to Jerry Allen Bailey, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison in 1996 for conspiracy to violate crack cocaine law, Obama said he granted Baily a commutation because “you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around.”

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“It will not be easy, and you will confront many who doubt people with criminal records can change,” Obama wrote. “But remember that you have the capacity to make good choices. By doing so you will affect not only your own life, but those close to you … I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong, and change your life for the better.”

Early in his presidency, Obama had been criticized for his stingy use of his pardon power. But the president in his second term has dramatically ramped up his use of that power. In March, Obama commuted the sentences of 22 drug offenders, more in a single swoop than he’d commuted during the entirety of his presidency to that point.

“We're thrilled to see that more folks serving excessively long sentences for non-violent drug offenses are going home,” said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "But they're leaving behind many equally deserving people, so let’s keep these commutations coming, while remembering that clemency is a tool made necessary by our failure to reform mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Congress simply can’t act fast enough.”

To date Obama has issued nearly 90 commutations, according to White House Counsel Neil Eggleston, the vast majority of whom have been non-violent drug offenders.

“While I expect the President will issue additional commutations and pardons before the end of his term, it is important to recognize that clemency alone will not fix decades of overly punitive sentencing policies,” Eggleston wrote in a blog post released with the president’s announcement. “As a former Assistant U.S. Attorney and criminal defense attorney, I'm well acquainted with how federal sentencing practices can, in too many instances, lead nonviolent drug offenders to spend decades, if not life, in prison … These unduly harsh sentences are one of the reasons the President is committed to using all the tools at his disposal to remedy unfairness in our criminal justice system.”