President Barack Obama announced on Friday he is commuting the sentences of 95 drug offenders, the third time this year he made use of his presidential powers to release prisoners. Another two people had their sentences pardoned.
"I am granting your application [for clemency] because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around," Obama wrote in a letter to one of the offenders. "Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity."
In March, Obama commuted the sentences of 22 drug offenders, and another 46 in July. Obama has employed his clemency power as a kind of activism against mass incarceration — as of July, he had freed more people from prison than the last four presidents combined.
"All inmates given clemency by Obama are first sent to lower-security prisons and then halfway houses to help begin their transition before they are released from the custody of the Bureau of Prisons," the Washington Post reports. "After that approximately four-month process, the inmates are released and transferred to the custody of the U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services system."
The main reason for the White House's announcement Friday is to draw attention to the over-incarceration of drug offenders.
In July, Obama told the public that he felt inspired to commute the sentences of drug offenders because "their punishments didn't fit the crime."
Obama made very limited use of his clemency power during his first term, but this year he has devoted considerable energy to advocating for criminal justice reform. Earlier in 2015, he became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison.
The president's efforts to highlight overly harsh sentences for drug offenders through commutations is a sensible goal. But it's also limited in the way it frames the causes of the nation's enormous prison population. While the war on drugs is widely perceived as one of the greatest contributors to mass incarceration in the U.S., data shows that even if everyone in prison for primarily drug-related charges were freed, the U.S. would still be the most voracious incarcerator in the world.
In other words, Obama would do well to consider commuting the sentences of other kinds of criminals — including people charged with violent crimes who have reformed after serving for a considerable length of time. That's something that would certainly elicit outcry from some quarters, but it's in accordance with how some of the rest of the civilized world treats its criminals, and it has been successful. Mass incarceration is a massive problem — and drug sentences are just one piece of the puzzle.