Politics

President Obama Stands up for Criminal Justice Reform

President Barack Obama wants to give prisoners second chances, and because he has executive powers, he's making that happen for a record number of people.

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By the end of March, Obama had already granted clemency during his administration to more prisoners than the last six presidents combined. Today, he announced he is extending that record breaking number by granting another 58 inmates clemency, bringing his total number of commutations to 306.

But Obama's not not done yet, according to White House Counsel Neil Eggleston. In an exclusive interview, he told ATTN: that he's worked closely with Obama on his clemency initiative.

"We've got a lot of months left and I think you're going to see that we'll continue to do this," he said.

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The 306 commutations that Obama has given under his administration are not just about the individuals, but about addressing a larger issue. Obama has given commutations as a way to stand up to harsh, often mandatory sentencing laws as part of a push for criminal justice reform. U.S. state and federal prisons held an estimated 1,561,500 inmates at the end of 2014 according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics' most recent data released in 2015. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. 

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"I think he regards this power that he has under the constitution as an important component, but he also believes that to have really lasting relief and prospective relief — because people are still getting sentenced in some cases in excess of mandatory minimums — that criminal justice reform is very important to really do a complete job."

In a statement released announcing the commutations, Obama called on Congress to create a bi-partisan solution to address mass incarceration.

"While I will continue to review clemency applications, only Congress can bring about the lasting changes we need to federal sentencing. That is why I am encouraged by the bipartisan efforts in Congress to reform federal sentencing laws, particularly on overly harsh mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Because it just doesn’t make sense to require a nonviolent drug offender to serve 20 years, or in some cases, life, in prison. An excessive punishment like that doesn’t fit the crime. It’s not serving taxpayers, and it’s not making us safer." — President Barack Obama

Many of the prisoners on this list were incarcerated for federal drug offenses, similar to Obama's previous rounds of commutations, and were sentenced at a time when the "War On Drugs" and other punishment-focused crime policies led to much harsher prison sentences.

"A lot of these are drug crimes where, particularly 10 or 20 years ago, the sentences were pretty excessive," Eggleston told ATTN:.

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President Obama also mentioned the power of clemency to right the wrongs of harsh drug punishments. He met a group of inmates who received clemency from former Presidents Clinton and Bush.

"Take Phillip Emmert. When he was 27, Phillip made a mistake. He was arrested and convicted for distributing methamphetamines and received a 27-year sentence. So, by the time he was released, he’d have spent half his life behind bars." — President Barack Obama

Eggleston said sentencing is one of the most important criteria when he and Obama look over the cases. The president himself makes the final decision.

"So particularly with clemency initiative cases, what we're looking for are instances where an inmate has spent a significant period of time and more time than he or she would spend if they were sentenced today," he said. "In some ways that's the principle thing we're looking at; the sentences from 10, 15, 20 years ago were much longer than they are today." They also look at a long span of prison behavior — since most of the people receiving clemency have been in prison for at least 10 years — including interest in prison educational courses.

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However physical freedom from prison is only just the beginning for these inmates. Being convicted of a federal crime can follow a felon for years after release. ATTN: has reported on the difficulty felons have in finding a place to live and getting a job with a conviction on their record. To help with that struggle, Eggleston said the Obama administration has instructed federal employees to "ban the box," an initiative that would require employers to wait until later in the interview process to ask applicants about their criminal history.

Ban the Box

"There's a lot of studies that those who were prior incarcerated can get hired if they can get through the initial screening process." he said. "Then they have a chance to show who they are and their character and their dedication."

In his letters to freed prisoners in 2015, Obama underlined his belief in the power of clemency to give second chances.

"It embodies the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance after having made a mistake in their lives that led to a conviction under our laws. Thousands of individuals have applied for commutation, and only a fraction of these applications are approved."

July 2015 Commutation Letter

Learn more about President Obama's important announcement in this ATTN: video:

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