President Obama Just Made Criminal Justice History on His Last Day

January 19th 2017

Kyle Jaeger

On his final full day in office, President Barack Obama announced a last round of commutations, shortening the prison sentences of 330 federal inmates. Obama has officially granted clemency to more inmates — 1,715 in total — than any president in U.S. history.


The majority of those whose sentences were reduced were convicted for nonviolent drug offenses. Obama has argued that lengthy sentences imposed for drug convictions have contributed to the country's mass incarceration problem, and he's prioritized sentencing reform as part of his administration's criminal justice agenda.

"In 2014, the president directed officials at the Department of Justice to undertake an ambitious effort: encourage federal inmates serving sentences imposed under outdated laws to apply for clemency," White House Counsel Neil Eggleston said in a press release Thursday. "Less than three years later, the president has now granted commutation to more than 1,700 individuals, the overwhelming majority of whom were serving sentences under outdated and overly harsh drug sentencing laws."

Though the federal prison population accounts for a small fraction of the 2.2 million Americans who are serving time across the U.S., according to the Prison Policy Initiative, the symbolic gesture is one way the president has set himself apart as a leader in the criminal justice reform movement. He's granted clemency to more inmates than the last 13 presidents combined.


Despite his success in this area, Obama expressed disappointment that Congress wasn't able to pass comprehensive sentencing reform under his administration in a paper published in the Harvard Law Review on Jan. 5.

"I continue to believe that a historic moment exists to embrace the bipartisan momentum on this issue," Obama wrote. "That kind of reform is good politics as well as good policy."