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Obama commutes sentences of 61 prisoners

President Barack Obama walks across the South Lawn after arriving on Marine One at the White House in Washington, D.C., March 29, 2016. (Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty)
President Barack Obama walks across the South Lawn after arriving on Marine One at the White House in Washington, D.C., March 29, 2016.

President Obama backed up his calls for reforming the way society punishes non-violent criminals on Tuesday by commuting the sentences of 61 prisoners — a third of them lifers.

"They're Americans who'd been serving time on the kind of outdated sentences that are clogging up our jails and burning through our tax dollars," Obama said ahead of a lunch meeting with some of ex-cons whose sentences he commuted earlier.

Referring to the newest batch of prisoners who are about to be set free, Obama said "most of them are low-level drug offenders whose sentences would have been shorter if they were convicted under today's laws."

RELATED: Obama commutes sentences of 95, pardons 2 in year-end spree

"I believe America is a nation of second chances, and with hard work, responsibility and better choices, people can change their lives and contribute to our society," he said. "That's why as long as I'm president, I'm going to keep working for a justice system that restores a sense of fairness, uses tax dollars more wisely, and keeps our communities safe."

Many of the newly-commuted prisoners were doing time for crack cocaine offenses — a group that reformers say is disproportionately African-American.

Obama has repeatedly called for either reducing or eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes — and has called on Congress to pass a criminal sentence reform bill. While there is some bipartisan support for change, so far it has not happened.

The White House on Tuesday touted that Obama has granted 187 commutations, more than any president since Gerald Ford.

But the Obama administration has come under withering criticism for lack of progress on his "Clemency Project 2014," which was aimed at freeing drug offenders who were sentenced to prison before the easing of notoriously harsh mandatory minimum rules.

So far, Obama has pardoned only 70 people — the fewest since John Adams.

His clemency initiative triggered an avalanche of applications.

But the administration has not kept up: at last count, there were more than 9,115 pending petitions for commutations, compared to 2,785 in 2014, according to the Justice Department. There are also 958 pending applications for pardons, the highest number since 2011.

The White House's former pardon attorney, Deborah Leff, resigned in January. In her departing letter, obtained by USA Today through a Freedom of Information Act request, Leff said she'd been hamstrung by a lack of resources, poor access to the Office of White House Counsel, and had been instructed to set aside thousands of petitions.

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