Obama's Historic Day of Clemency

The president on Wednesday commuted the sentences of 214 federal inmates.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

NEWS BRIEF President Obama has commuted the sentences of more than 200 people, a move the White House hailed as the most grants of presidential clemency in one day in more than a century.

The White House said Wednesday 214 people convicted of federal crimes had their sentences commuted. Many of them were convicted of nonviolent drug-related crimes.

“Today began like any other for 214 federal inmates across the country, but ultimately became a day I am confident they will never forget,” White House Counsel Neil Eggleston said in a statement. “This morning, these individuals received a message from the President: your application for clemency has been granted.”

Obama’s commutations came amid a broader effort by his administration to reduce excessive sentences in the federal criminal-justice system. With more than 200,000 inmates currently housed in federal prisons, Wednesday's announcement won't significantly reduce the federal prison population. But for the hundreds of inmates whose sentences were shortened, the president’s move is life-changing.

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Including Wednesday’s commutations, Obama has granted a total of 562 commutations — a number that the White House says is more than the previous nine presidents combined but that has been questioned by some advocates who point to the amnesty program and subsequent actions taken by President Gerald Ford regarding those who evaded the Vietnam War-era military draft.

While many of Wednesday’s commutations mean that those people will be released from prison by the end of the year, the 214 commutations take a variety of forms. Some people have their sentences merely reduced, but they will continue to be imprisoned for the near term. Others have release dates set for a year or two from now. Some of the commutations include conditions, including enrollment in a residential drug treatment program.

Under the Constitution, the president enjoys unfettered power to commute and pardon the sentences of people accused and convicted of federal crimes. Most modern presidents defer to the U.S. Pardon Attorney, a Justice Department official, when choosing eligible recipients.

Criminal-justice activists have frequently criticized the office as a bottleneck in the pardoning system. To accelerate the process, Obama supported a project in 2014 by the Justice Department and a small army of volunteer lawyers to separately review tens of thousands of pardon requests before he leaves office.