Why Is the White House Releasing More Prisoners?

Parallax News presents big issues broken down into multiple perspectives. This brief looks at 3 different perspectives on Obama’s historic commutation of 214 prison sentences.

President Obama carried out one of the greatest acts of clemency in U.S. history this week, commuting the sentences of 214 prisoners, 67 of them life terms. The inmates to benefit stand convicted of non-violent offenses, mostly related to drugs, and all served at least ten years. Many will be released in December, and the rest will be set free within the next two years. Obama has now granted clemency to 562 people, mostly through sentence-reducing commutations as opposed to outright pardons. His total number of commutations is more than those of the last nine presidents combined.

I. Barack Obama

President Obama has attempted to shift the U.S. away from being “a country that imprisons its citizens at a rate far higher than any other.” Obama believes his commutations reverse overly harsh punishments imposed on non-violent offenders during earlier decades. The sentences being commuted would have been far shorter under current laws, Obama notes, meaning that the inmates are suffering unduly as remnants of an unfair and outdated system. The White House points out that, apart from the suffering of 2.2 million imprisoned Americans, mass incarceration costs $80 billion annually and detracts from alternative efforts to help people earn a second chance. To illustrate this, the president has included in his commutation terms mandatory drug treatment and other re-integration programs.

II. Richard Shelby

Senator Richard Shelby (R — Ala.) has been openly critical of President Obama’s clemency initiative for “non-violent” drug offenders. The Alabama senator argues that the recent mass waves of commutations have actually included individuals who pose threats to society. In numerous cases, the convictions include illegal firearm possession, meaning those in question were deadly criminals. What’s more, those serving lengthy sentences for drug violations are often repeat offenders, which indicates to Shelby that they will be more likely to return to crime upon release. Apart from this obvious danger, Shelby says the president’s clemency acts send “an unfortunate and resounding message to criminals everywhere: if you are convicted of a crime involving a gun, the federal government will go easy on you.”

III. Mark Osler

Mark Osler is a law professor and co-founder of Clemency Project 2014, which aims to help with prisoner applications and otherwise facilitate President Obama’s clemency goals. Osler, whose group assisted in more than 100 of the commutation applications that were approved this week, worries that many who deserve Obama’s clemency won’t receive it. The professor believes at least 1,500 should be released early under White House criteria. With less than six months left in Obama’s term, fewer than half those individuals have had their applications approved. Osler argues that, in order to speed the process, more resources must be devoted to the administration’s Pardon Attorney, who is overseeing the clemency initiative. Otherwise, many deserving of a second chance may spend much, if not all, of their lives behind bars.


Further Reading: NPR / Daily Caller / USA Today

This brief was written by Jared Metzker.

To get more perspectives subscribe to the Parallax News brief.