President’s Commutations Total Rises to 348; Has Sentencing Reform Stalled?

By Christopher Zoukis

President Obama

President Obama

On June 3, President Obama commuted sentences for 42 more federal inmates, bringing his total to 348 individuals to have their prison sentences reduced or ended. A statement from White House counsel Neil Eggleston noted the total outstrips commutations issued by the past seven presidents combined. The last three months brought close to half – 161 -- of Obama’s total commutations, with 61 announced in March and 58 in May, on top of the latest round.

According to White House-released background information on inmates in the latest round of commutations, 20, or almost half, had been sentenced to prison for life, most for possessing or distributing crack or powder cocaine. Including the latest round, Obama has commuted life sentences for 130 federal inmates. The inmates with new commutations now have release dates ranging from the start of October through next June.

Eggleston’s statement also said those receiving commutations were serving prison time under laws with “outdated and unduly harsh” sentencing rules, and added President Obama “remains committed” to continuing to use his commutation powers through the rest of his term to help others who have earned a second chance by repaying their debt to society. Instead of issuing individual commutations, some sentencing reform advocates want him to reduce sentenced for classes of inmates, such as those sentenced for crack cocaine offenses before Congress acted to reduce those penalties.

Arguing that legislation is needed to address federal laws which impose unduly harsh minimum sentences on “thousands” of federal prisoners who as a result longer than needed sentences, the White House statement also pushed for bipartisan Congressional action to send a criminal justice  reform bill to the president’s desk.

A sentencing reform bill (S. 2123) cleared by the Senate Judiciary Committee last October would reduce mandatory sentences for federal drug crimes, give judges more discretion in crafting sentences, and even make some of those changes retroactive. As recently as late April, a bipartisan group of members of the Senate Judiciary Committee announced support for a revised version of the bill.

There is significant support for the measure from some, but far from all of the Republicans controlling the Senate – conservatives like Charles Grassley (IA) and John Cornyn (TX) have supported it, while Ted Cruz (TX), Jeff Sessions (AL) and Tom Cotton (AR) have strongly opposed it. 

Proponents have urged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) to bring the bill up on the Senate floor, pointing to it as not only useful reforms, but also potentially one of the few measures that might gain enough bipartisan support to pass the sharply divided chamber in an election year. So far, he’s made no commitment the measure will be brought up in the few remaining months Congress will be in session.

In the House of Representatives, several limited measures have cleared the floor, but House Judiciary Committee chairman Robert Goodlatte (VA) says the chamber won’t act on a broad sentencing reform bill unless it adds a provision, strongly opposed by House Democrats, to mandate intent as part of the definition for most crimes. Even without that complication, the dwindling legislative calendar and sharp partisan divisions threaten to keep sentencing reform from seeing House floor action this year.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com