WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama on Friday commuted the sentences of 95 prisoners and pardoned two more, part of an ongoing effort within the White House to rethink a criminal justice system that critics say has resulted in overly harsh and expensive punishment for thousands of drug offenders.
The commutations, the most Obama has issued at one time, mostly benefit nonviolent drug offenders - including many who were given life sentences for crack and cocaine crimes, and some who have already spent more than two decades behind bars.
The White House also pardoned an Ohio man sentenced to probation in a counterfeiting case and a Virginia woman sentenced to home detention and supervised release in a bank fraud case.
"The president's decision today to commute the prison terms of 95 individuals is another sign of this administration's strong commitment to ensuring fairness in the criminal justice system," Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said in a statement.
Friday's announcement brings to 184 the number of inmates whose sentences have been commuted by the Obama administration, which in the last few years has been working to build bipartisan support for reducing a federal prison population that eats up a large percentage of the Justice Department budget. Nearly half the roughly 200,000 convicts in federal custody are there for drug offenses, statistics show.
"I'm delighted for each and every one of these prisoners, and certainly this is the largest number of prisoners who have been released for a very long time," Mary Price, general counsel of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group, said in an interview.
At the same time, she added, "We would love to see more prisoners receive commutations."
The number of commutations granted by Obama is more than the past five presidents combined, according to the White House, which also says Obama sent personal letters to each inmate.
"I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around. Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity," Obama wrote to Donald Allen, a drug offender from Florida who was given a life sentence in 1998.
In a turnabout from the 1980s and 1990s, when federal prosecutors routinely sought decades-long sentences for drug crimes, the Justice Department in recent years discouraged that kind of punishment for nonviolent criminals.
As part of a 2013 initiative he called Smart on Crime, former Attorney General Eric Holder directed prosecutors to rein in their use of harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug criminals.
And last year, concerned that too few deserving drug criminals were receiving consideration for clemency, Justice Department officials announced expanded criteria designed to encourage more inmates to apply.
That initiative was directed at nonviolent inmates who did not have ties to large scale gangs, had been behind bars for at least 10 years, had a clean record of behavior in prison and who likely would have received a substantially shorter sentence if convicted of the same crime today.
Thousands of inmates have asked for legal help in preparing applications, and a team of lawyers has been working to help identify eligible prisoners and recommend good candidates for clemency.
Though advocates applauded that move, the number of prisoners granted clemency since then has been fewer than what they had hoped.
"We know that there are a lot of prisoners who have asked the president to reduce their sentences who we haven't heard about," said Price, who called on Obama to "keep it up and step it up."