President Obama will commute the sentences of eight people convicted on crack cocaine charges, six of whom were sentenced to life imprisonment. The move is somewhat unusual — as turkey aficionados noted at Thanksgiving, Obama has used his power to pardon and commute sentences less frequently than any other recent president — but reflects his focus on reforming drug laws.
As The New York Times notes, this will be the first time the president has intervened in drug cases where current laws would result in a much lower sentence, thanks to the Fair Sentencing Act of 2011. The Times obtained an advance look at the president's prepared statement for the announcement. It reads:
“If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society. 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.”
Stephanie George, Clarence Aaron, and Reynolds Wintersmith will be among those receiving sentence reductions. All three were first-time offenders, were handed a mandatory minimum sentence of life without parole. Aaron is arguably the most high-profile inmate of the eight granted a sentence reduction by the president. He's serving three life sentences for participating in a drug deal in 1993, at the age of 22. His long-pending application for early release gained additional support almost exactly one year ago, when a Justice Department investigation found that the pardons office during the Bush administration unfavorably misrepresented Aaron's case to the White House, apparently in order to prevent Aaron from being released.
In August, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the administration would work to revise federal mandatory sentencing minimums, specifically because of disparities in how they're applied. Today's announcement appears to mirror that shift in focus.
Update: here's the President's full statement on the commuted sentences:
Three years ago, I signed the bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act, which dramatically narrowed the disparity between penalties for crack and powder cocaine offenses. This law began to right a decades-old injustice, but for thousands of inmates, it came too late. If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society. 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.
Today, I am commuting the prison terms of eight men and women who were sentenced under an unfair system. Each of them has served more than 15 years in prison. In several cases, the sentencing judges expressed frustration that the law at the time did not allow them to issue punishments that more appropriately fit the crime.
Commuting the sentences of these eight Americans is an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness. But it must not be the last. In the new year, lawmakers should act on the kinds of bipartisan sentencing reform measures already working their way through Congress. Together, we must ensure that our taxpayer dollars are spent wisely, and that our justice system keeps its basic promise of equal treatment for all.