In presidential tradition President Obama granted clemency to more than 95 federal prisoners on Friday and issuing pardons to two other prisoners. This marks the largest single-day grant of clemency of Obama’s presidency. He has commuted more prison sentences than any president since Lyndon Johnson and more than those issued by Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush combined. The commutations are for those with drug offenses. The two pardons deal with counterfeiting and bank fraud. President Obama’s list included more than three dozen people serving life sentences.
The constitution gives the president the power to “grant reprieves and pardons for offences against the United States.” A pardons is the complete removal of all punishment for a crime; a commutation shortens a prison sentence but often continues to impose other conditions. The president’s power is limited to federal offenses; most states give governors a similar power over state crimes. The move comes as Mr. Obama is pressing for a rewrite of criminal justice laws that would reverse a decades-long trend of steep penalties for nonviolent offenses that has swelled the nation’s prison population, disproportionately impacting African-American and Hispanic men.
The issues of crime and punishment have particular resonance for Mr. Obama, who has spoken in increasingly vivid terms this year about race and injustice in America. In July he became the first president to visit a federal prison, where he spoke with inmates and reflected on how close he might have come as a young black man to sharing their fates.
I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around,” Mr. Obama wrote in separate letters to each of the prisoners, which he signed one by one in the Oval Office on Thursday. “Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity.” “But remember that you have the capacity to make good choices,” the president wrote.
Many of the prisoners whose sentences he has commuted have completed high school equivalency or other educational programs, administration officials said. Republicans and Democrats alike have expressed a desire to confront the issue of prison overcrowding and excessive sentences, forming an usual alliance of liberals concerned about civil rights and the plight of men of color, conservatives who oppose costly federally funded mass incarceration, and libertarians suspicious of government control.
Presidential candidates in both parties have endorsed the effort, and members of Congress have teamed to negotiate a legislative package that the White House hopes will yield a law as early as this spring. The White House has been working with lawmakers from both parties in an effort to overhaul U.S. sentencing.