Obama Shortens Prison Terms For 46 Drug Offenders, Vows More Commutations

Jul 14, 2015
Originally published on July 14, 2015 6:03 pm
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

For years, reformers have been complaining that the justice system is out of whack, but now they're hearing that sentiment echoed from the White House. This week, President Obama agreed to shorten the prison sentences of 46 people locked up for nonviolent drug crimes, and he says there's more to come. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The president says the power to shorten prison sentences is one of the most profound authorities he has. He's exercised that influence to reduce the prison terms of nearly 90 inmates during his presidency, half of them in one day this week.

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BARACK OBAMA: These men and women were not hardened criminals, but the overwhelming majority had been sentenced to at least 20 years. Fourteen of them had been sentenced to life for nonviolent drug offenses. So their punishments didn't fit the crime.

JOHNSON: The inmates who won a reprieve this week will be sent to halfway houses and eventually released back into their communities. President Obama wrote each of them, urging the prisoners to make the most of this opportunity.

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OBAMA: I believe that, at its heart, America is a nation of second chances. And I believe these folks deserve their second chance.

JOHNSON: But sentencing reform advocates say the number of pending clemency applications numbers in the tens of thousands, far more than this White House can approve without rolling out some kind of mass commutation program. Julie Stewart leads the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

JULIE STEWART: But until we change the laws that put people in prison for 20, 30 years, life, we're going to have to continue to do more commutation, and that is the most inefficient way to address our over-incarceration problem. It would be much more effective if Congress would change the laws.

JOHNSON: President Obama will highlight that issue today in a speech to the NAACP. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.