President Obama commutes non-violent drug sentences in move to reduce mass incarceration
In an effort to pare down the massive number of people serving long prison sentences for non-violent, drug-related offenses, President Barack Obama will free dozens of federal prisoners in the coming weeks, the New York Times reports.
While the president is expected to commute the sentences of a rough total of 80 people soon, it’s just a small fraction of the 30,000 prisoners who applied for clemency. But it’s part of a broader move to correct what many agree to be a national pattern of gross over-sentencing, thanks to years of “tough on crime” politicians who instituted mandatory minimum sentencing, according to the Times.
The United States is the world’s largest jailer, according to statistics from the American Civil Liberties Union. With just 5 percent of the world’s population, the US has 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Since 1970, the US prison population has shot up 700 percent.
The crisis has been attributed to the War on Drugs, which is now broadly seen as a failure, and mandatory minimum sentencing, according to Business Insider.
Attorney, author and activist Michelle Alexander has pointed out that mass incarceration disproportionately affects men of color. The author of the paradigm-shifting book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, said that more black men were in the clutches of the criminal justices system in modern times than were enslaved in 1850.
In a candid interview with The Wire creator David Simon, Obama and the former Baltimore Sun crime reporter discussed the failings of the criminal justice system and need for change.
Consequences have been “this massive trend toward incarceration, even of non-violent drug offenders… I saw this from the perspective of a state legislator,” Obama said. “This just explosion of incarcerations, disproportionately African-American and Latino. The challenge, which you depict in your show is, folks go in at great expense to the state, many times train to become more hardened criminals while in prison, come out and are basically unemployable.”
A consortium of lawyers from groups including the American Bar Association, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has formed Clemency Project 2014 to help expedite clemency applications, the Times reports. With 50 law firms, 20 law schools and roughly 1,500 lawyers participating, the process is inundated and burdensome.
While it has been criticized for being slow and painful, with applications for clemency far outnumbering resources to process them, it demonstrates a change in mindset. Support has come from both sides of the political spectrum.
Neil Eggleston, who recommends clemency petitions to the president, told the Times that conservatives, liberals and libertarians have “come together in order to focus attention on excessive sentences, the costs and the like, and the need to correct some of those excesses.”
Watch Obama and Simon discuss mass incarceration below: