President Obama on Wednesday commuted the sentences of 61 federal prisoners, more than a third of whom were serving life sentences, as part of his administration’s push for changes to decades-old sentencing laws, particularly for nonviolent, drug-related offenses.
Most of the individuals are low-level drug offenders “whose sentences would have been shorter if they were convicted under today’s laws,” Obama said in a Facebook post.
The announcement brings Obama’s total number of commutations during his tenure to 248. He has also issued 70 pardons.
The president met Wednesday afternoon with formerly incarcerated individuals whose prison sentences were commuted by him, and his two immediate predecessors, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. A video posted on Facebook showed Obama shaking hands and hugging the men and women and asking them to lunch.
Obama has vowed to change laws adopted during the nation’s war on drugs in the 1980s and ’90s that led to a dramatic increase in the U.S. prison population. Bipartisan legislation years in the making that would significantly alter federal sentencing laws is idling Congress, facing opposition from some Republican lawmakers.
Neil Eggleston, the White House counsel, pointed out Wednesday that Obama has commuted the sentences of more people than the previous six presidents combined. Until about 2014, Obama had used his clemency powers more sparingly than his predecessors; at the time, one in seven of his pardons had been issued for Thanksgiving turkeys. That year, he commuted 22 sentences in March and 46 in July, most of which were for nonviolent drug crimes. His largest, one-time use of clemency came in December, when he commuted the sentences of 95 prisoners, most of whom received lengthy sentences for cocaine trafficking and possession in the 1990s.