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Obama commutes sentences of 46 drug offenders

Saul Loeb, AFP | US President Barack Obama on July 13, 2015
3 min

US President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 46 non-violent drug offenders on Monday as part of a broader push to reform the country’s criminal justice system.

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The move brings the total number of commutations granted by Obama to 89 – more than those of the country’s last four presidents put together.

“These men and women were not hardened criminals,” Obama said in a video released by the White House. “But the overwhelming majority had been sentenced to at least 20 years. Fourteen of them had been sentenced to life for non-violent drug offences.”

The president highlighted that had the inmates in question been sentenced under today’s laws, many of them would have already served their time.

“Their punishments didn’t fit the crime,” he said.

They are now set to be released from prison on November 10.

“I believe that, at its heart, America is a country of second chances. And I believe these folks deserve their second chance,” Obama said.

Overhauling the criminal justice system

With just a year and a half left in office, Obama has made overhauling the country’s criminal justice system a priority.

He is expected to make a speech at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (known as the NAACP) in Philadelphia on Tuesday outlining his proposals for reform. He will become the first sitting president to visit a federal prison on Thursday, when he is scheduled to go to the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma.

The United States has the largest prison population in the world, with a total of 2,217,000 people behind bars in 2013, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies.

The country’s high incarceration rates are due in part to the mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenses enacted by Congress during the 1980s, said the Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an organisation committed to changing these policies.

Obama noted that the overall cost of keeping so many people in prison is more than $80 billion annually.

While the president has addressed inequities within the criminal justice system in the past  ̶  in 2010 he signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law, which established new guidelines regarding mandatory sentencing for crack cocaine offenses  ̶  support for the issue has grown in recent years among politicians on both sides of the aisle amid falling crime rates.

Obama said that he wanted to build off of this momentum.

“Right now with our overall crime rate and incarceration rate both falling, we’re at a moment when some good people in both parties, Republicans and Democrats, and folks all across the country are coming together around ideas to make the system work smarter, make it work better,” Obama said. “And I’m determined to do my part wherever I can.”

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