President Obama Just Reached a Major Milestone

President Barack Obama reduced the sentences of 79 federal inmates on Tuesday, bringing the total number of commutations under his administration to 1,023.


As part of an effort to reform America's criminal justice system, Obama has periodically commuted sentences for mostly non-violent drug offenders, some of whom were serving life sentences. The president has used his executive clemency powers to highlight how harsh sentencing has contributed to the country's mass incarceration problem.

"It makes no sense for a nonviolent drug offender to be serving decades, or sometimes life, in prison," Obama said in a statement Tuesday. "That’s not serving taxpayers, and it’s not serving the public safety. Instead, it burdens our already overcrowded prisons."

Though the president has "granted commutations to more prisoners than the past 11 presidents combined," much more would need to be done to significantly reduce the United States' prison population. There were approximately 94,000 federal inmates serving time for drug offenses such as possession and trafficking in 2012, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

And while Obama's commutations may be just a drop in the bucket when you consider America's prison population as a whole — which comprises more than 2 million inmates, making it the largest in the world — the act of commuting nonviolent drug offenders specifically calls attention to how harsh drug laws have affected our criminal justice system. According to the Brookings Institute, "[d]rug crimes have been the predominant reason for new admissions into state and federal prisons in recent decades."

"During the period from 1993 to 2011, there were three million admissions into federal and state prisons for drug offenses. Over the same period, there were 30 million arrests for drug crimes, 24 million of which were for possession... A dangerous combination of approaches to policing, prosecution, sentencing, criminal justice, and incarceration is resulting in higher costs for taxpayers, less opportunity for affected individuals, and deep damage to hopes for racial equality."

Obama has recognized that his clemency powers can only go so far in terms of correcting injustices in the criminal justice system. His administration has coupled those gestures with proposals to bolster reentry programs for released inmates and promote fair policing practices, for example.