Obama Frees Record 214 Federal Drug War Prisoners, More Work Left to Do

Recently, President Obama commuted the sentences of a record 214 federal inmates, which was the largest single-day commutations grant in our national history. It means the total number of presidential commutations the president has issued is now at 562, which is more than any other president who actually granted federal prisoner commutations since Calvin Coolidge. In fact, it’s more than the last nine presidents combined. handcuffs6

Most of these commutations have occurred in this, Obama’s last year in office. Undoubtedly, they are part of a larger state Obama is making about the existing failures in our criminal drug system. Of those whose sentences were commuted on this recent round, 197 were serving life sentences for non-violent drug crimes. Almost every one of the total 214 were serving sentences for non-violent crimes that were in some way connected to drugs. They will all be freed by December 1st.

“The extraordinary rate of incarcerations of non-violent drug offenders has created its own set of problems,” Obama said at a news conference announcing the commutations. These consequences include:

  • Stressed communities
  • Families forever broken
  • Huge swaths of people – most lower-income minorities – locked out of legal economic opportunity.

These harsh sentencing laws were designed to curb the sale of illegal drugs and to put a stop to rampant addiction. But research has shown time and again that these laws achieve neither of these goals. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services conducted a survey two years ago on national drug abuse. What they discovered was that 1 in every 10 people in the U.S. had used an illicit drug in the recent past. That was a higher percentage than we’d seen in any year between 2002 and 2013.

No, long-term criminal sentences do not stop drug-related crime. Instead, what they have done is served to enact a cycle of poverty and crime that makes it very difficult to break free. If you are a felony drug offender, you will soon find yourself unable to find work. You can’t get a loan to go back to school. Landlords refuse to rent to you and federal housing programs refuse to extend you assistance. So what do you do to survive? It becomes understandable in these circumstances that a person left with limited options would return to selling drugs.

Obama’s action follows his signature of the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010 that lessens the unfair disparities in sentenced that are imposed on people for different forms of cocaine. Minorities were typically dealing/ using the cheaper rock form, while whites were more often caught with the pricier powder form. Guess which form garnered heftier penalties?

At the time, Obama freed eight prisoners, saying he would consider more applications assuming they met certain criteria, which included:

  • Having served at least 10 years;
  • Had good conduct in prison;
  • Had no significant criminal history with organized crime, gangs or cartels;
  • Would likely receive a substantially lower sentenced if convicted of the same or similar offense today.

Although this round of commutations was significant, it’s really a drop in the bucket. As our L.A. marijuana defense attorneys know, of the 100,000 federal drug prisoners – which represent about half of the overall federal prison population – some 36,000 had appealed to the president for clemency. Of those, the Department of Justice reviewed 9,500 cases that met the basic criteria. Of those, Obama has only granted clemency for 562. Applications of 9,000 more are still pending.

A presidential commutation is certainly welcome for any federal prisoner, but it’s not an effective legal strategy overall. If you can, it’s better to avoid the conviction in the first place. That’s why you need an experienced L.A. marijuana lawyer.

The Los Angeles CANNABIS LAW Group represents growers, dispensaries, collectives, patients and those facing marijuana charges. Call us at 714-937-2050.

Additional Resources:

Obama’s commutations a powerful statement, but only a first step, Aug. 5, 2016, Opinion, San Francisco Chronicle

More Blog Entries:

Teen Faces Federal Drug Charges for 1 Gram of Marijuana, Aug. 11, 2016, L.A. Marijuana Lawyer Blog