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Obama grants clemency to nonviolent drug offenders

July 15, 2015
by Julia Brown, Associate Editor
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On Monday, President Obama commuted the sentences of 46 drug offenders—including 14 nonviolent drug offenders. This follows the commutation of eight people incarcerated in federal prison for drug offenses in December 2014—four of which had been sentenced to life in prison—and 22 in March 2015. 

Obama has now commuted 89 sentences—including 76 nonviolent drug offenders.

“This is a small but good move toward rectifying the overreliance on incarceration for drug-related offenses," says Daniel Raymond, policy director of the Harm Reduction Coalition, an organization founded by a group of needle-exchange providers, advocates and drug users in 1993. “We see the clemency announcement as part of a broader realignment to prioritize treatment over incarceration in dealing with criminally involved persons with substance use disorders.”

Raymond adds that the biggest challenges lie in expanding access to quality, evidence-based treatment and reinvesting savings from criminal justice reform into a better infrastructure for behavioral health services.

Second chance

In a video posted on Facebook, Obama said all 46 prisoners had served sentences disproportionate to their crimes.

“These men and women were not hardened criminals, but the overwhelming majority had been sentenced to at least 20 years,” Obama said in the video. “I believe that at its heart, America is a nation of second chances. And I believe that these folks deserve their second chance,” adding that he wrote letters urging them to begin making wise decisions.

The inmates are scheduled to be released in November, when they will be sent to halfway houses to help begin their transition.

The commutations are part of the administration’s attempt to reduce costs ($80 billion is spent annually in incarceration); overcrowding in prisons (the United States has the largest prison population in the world with drug offenders making up half as of 2013); and provide relief to inmates sentenced under more aggressive laws. Lawmakers in Congress are currently debating a bipartisan effort to change sentencing laws.

Also this week, Obama is scheduled to visit a federal prison in Oklahoma, which will be the first time a sitting U.S. president will visit a federal prison.