President Obama commutes 22 drug sentences

http://www.politico.com/story/2015/03/president-obama-commutes-drug-sentences-116557.html

President Obama commutes 22 drug sentences

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3/31/15 5:40 PM EDT

Updated 3/31/15 6:10 PM EDT

President Barack Obama cut short the prison sentences of 22 drug convicts Tuesday, fueling a drive he launched more than a year ago to allow early release of some prisoners sentenced under harsh laws enacted at the height of the war on drugs.

For the first time, Obama’s commutations included two petitions put forward by Clemency Project 2014, an effort launched by several private organizations and federal public defenders to provide attorneys for prisoners seeking to file applications for the president’s effort to reduce drug sentences. Two others on the list already had petitions on file but later got help from the project, an official said.

POLITICO reported in January that Obama’s commutation effort was still struggling to take off, stymied by a lack of resources at the Justice Department office that processes clemency applications and by a flood of requests for counsel that swamped the legal service project set up by the American Civil Liberties Union, Families Against Mandatory Minimums and others.

The White House said Obama sent letters to the 22 inmates granted commutations Tuesday, wishing them luck and reminding them that their actions out of prison may effect whether other prisoners get similar chances at clemency in the future.

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“It is up to you to make the most of this opportunity,” Obama wrote to Terry Andre Barnes, who was sentenced in 2005 to 20 years and six months in prison on charges of distributing crack cocaine. “It will not be easy, and you will confront many who doubt that people with criminal records can change. … You will also influence, through your example, the possibility that others in similar circumstances get their own second chance in the future.”

The 22 commutations announced Tuesday come atop 21 earlier commutations issued by Obama. While recent numbers remain modest, they far outstrip the one commutation he issued in his first term.

“We are thrilled and look forward to many more!” Clemency Project 2014’s Cynthia Rosebery said. “It is my fervent hope that what we have seen today is only the beginning and that the administration will make the exercise of its clemency power ever more robust.”

The vast majority of those on the latest commutation list were cocaine or crack offenders. One case involved methamphetamine and another marijuana.

Most recipients appeared to fit some of the Justice Department criteria laid out last year for Obama’s commutation drive, but one has not yet served the 10 years in prison listed as a prerequisite for a commutation through the new effort. Another appeared to have a felony record before committing the crack dealing offense that sent him to prison.

The criteria are not binding. A president’s authority to issue commutations, pardons and other forms of clemency is set forth in the Constitution and has virtually no restrictions.

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All but one of the prisoners had their sentences commuted to end in July. The three-month delay usually allows transition to a halfway house, as well as advance efforts to find homes and jobs for those granted a commutation.

One prisoner, Derrick DeWayne Johnson, was serving a 30-year sentence imposed in 1998 for possessing cocaine with intent to distribute. His sentence was cut by Obama to 21 years, 10 months.

White House Counsel Neil Eggleston called clemency a “last resort” in most cases, and he urged Congress to pass sentencing reform legislation that would address the issue more broadly. But he said Obama plans to issue more commutations in cases he deems suitable.

“The President will continue to use his clemency authority in certain instances where justice, fairness, and proportionality demand it, and to give eligible and worthy individuals who have paid their debt to society a chance to contribute in meaningful ways,” Eggleston wrote on the White House blog Tuesday.

Of the 43 commutations Obama has issued, 40 have gone to drug offenders, while three went to individuals convicted in connection with a Cuban spy ring. Those three prisoners were deported to Cuba as part of the Obama administration’s effort to improve relations with Cuba’s government.

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