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Obama Just Commuted 58 More Prison Sentences. Is He Doing Enough?

President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison this year. Here, he looks inside a cell at El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/EVAN VUCCI
President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison this year. Here, he looks inside a cell at El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/EVAN VUCCI

President Obama announced on Thursday that he commuted the prison sentences of 58 people doing time for drug-related offenses — just over a month after doing the same for 61 others. The decision is the latest example of Obama’s effort to reform the country’s broken criminal justice system during his last term.

“It just doesn’t make sense to require a nonviolent drug offender to serve 20 years, or in some cases, life, in prison,” Obama wrote on the website Medium. “An excessive punishment like that doesn’t fit the crime. It’s not serving taxpayers, and it’s not making us safer.”

Eighteen inmates benefiting from the decision are serving life sentences. Most of the 58 people serving time for drug possession, intent to sell, or related crimes will be released September 2.

Obama has now commuted the sentences 306 inmates during his two terms — “more than the previous six presidents combined,” he noted.

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The number is still a far cry from his 2014 promise to shorten 10,000 prison sentences, Vox reported. In fact, the White House’s own pardon attorney was so frustrated with the president’s lack of support, she resigned earlier this year.

“Given that the Department has not fulfilled its commitment to provide the resources necessary for my office…the requests of thousands of petitioners seeking justice will lie unheard,” former Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff wrote in her resignation letter in January.

Obama still has seven months to reach the promised ten thousand commutations, but that’s unlikely.

Besides commuting drug sentences, the Obama administration has made big strides toward criminal justice reform. In 2014 the Justice Department changed drug sentencing guidelines retroactively, freeing about 6,100 federal prison inmates last year. Last summer, Obama became the first U.S. president to visit a federal prison, which was followed by an executive order for federal employers to “ban the box” asking job applicants whether they had been convicted of a crime. Months later, the White House announced that Obama would ban solitary confinement for juvenile and low-level offenders in federal prisons.

Cory Herro is an intern at ThinkProgress.