Obama Uses Pardon Power To Release Prisoners Sentenced Under Draconian Drug Laws


Stephanie George, who will be released from prison in April.

Stephanie George, who will be released from prison in April.

CREDIT: Families Against Mandatory Minimums

President Obama reduced the sentences Thursday of eight prisoners serving long federal prison sentences — six of them life sentences — under draconian laws for crack-cocaine sentencing. He also pardoned 13 others, at least six of whom were in prison for drug offenses.

In a statement, Obama noted that the eight individuals whose sentences he commuted were serving racially discriminatory sentences for crack cocaine, under a pre-2010 sentencing disparity that issued sentences 100 times harsher for crack cocaine, associated with African Americans, than for powder cocaine, associated with whites.

In 2010, Congress reduced that disparity to 18-to-1, but the Supreme Court has not yet deemed the law retroactive meaning that those sentenced to mandatory minimum prison terms before 2010 have remained behind bars.

“If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society,” Obama said. “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.”

He added, “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.”

Among those who will be released from prison are Clarence Aaron, who became a symbol of the broken clemency system after he was the subject of ProPublica exposés both on racial discrimination in the pardons process, and a report that found the U.S. Pardon Attorney botched his application for clemency. Others whose sentences were reduced include Reynolds Withersmith, who was sentenced to life without parole on a crack-cocaine conspiracy offense that he committed as a teen, and Stephanie George, who, like many drug offenders serving life without parole, was given the longest sentence of any of her co-defendants, even though the judge who sentenced her under protest lamented that her primary role was as “a girlfriend and bag holder and money holder.” Another beneficiary of Obama’s announcement, Ezell Gilbert, had been over-sentenced by as much as 13 years. But courts cited procedural hurdles in declining to reduce his sentence.

Under the U.S. Constitution’s pardon power, President Obama can shorten these sentences through what is known as a commutation. He can also eliminate a conviction through the pardon. But prior to Thursday’s announcement, he had commuted only one sentence during his tenure, out of 8,700 commutation applications, according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums. His rate of both pardons and commutations was the lowest of any president in modern history.

In recent months, U.S. Attorney General Holder announced two initiatives to relax drug prosecutions against some low-level offenders, by both averting mandatory minimum sentences for some low-level drug offenders, and avoiding prosecution of some marijuana offenders complying with state law. He said in a major address, “too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.” But while congressional reform to mandatory minimum sentences and drug laws could make a major dent in alleviating a prison crisis that has been driven largely by these sentences, the White House had been silent on its own capacity to immediately end some of these sentences through the presidential pardon power.

Thursday’s announcement acknowledged at least one component of this drug sentencing epidemic, the disproportionate sentences for crack cocaine offenders. Obama also acknowledged that these commutations are a first step and not a last.

“In the new year, lawmakers should act on the kinds of bipartisan sentencing reform measures already working their way through Congress,” Obama said.

On the same day of Obama’s announcement, the Senate Judiciary Committee took up two of these bills to reform mandatory minimum laws, and another related to prison reform. These bills would reform judicial discretion in sentencing going forward. One of them, the Smarter Sentencing Act, would also shorten the sentences for the other crack offenders Obama referenced by making the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive.