Barack Obama earned a new presidential record by commuting the sentences of 214 people this week, the highest number of shortened sentences in one day since 1900, according to a White House press release.
The move comes after Obama expressed his advocacy for a clemency review process in 2014 to free inmates who remain incarcerated thanks to outdated laws. 67 of those given clemency on Wednesday were serving life sentences for nonviolent drug crimes or firearms charges in relation to their “drug activities,” reports the Associated Press. During his presidency, Obama has ordered 562 commutations, “more commutations than the previous nine Presidents combined and more commutations than any individual President in nearly a century.”
While all 214 people, who are mostly men, will be freed, not everyone will walk out of their cells immediately. The clemency applications are reviewed individually and some applicants must serve a bit more time while others will receive “additional drug treatment” as a condition of their commutations. In the release, White House counsel Neil Eggleston said he’s proud of what the President and his team have done, but called for Congressional actions to change outdated laws that have left many behind bars for something that would no longer be a life sentence.
For example, in 2002 Debra Brown was convicted of selling coke and subsequently sentenced to 20 years in prison. Her sentence will end on December 1, like most of the others. The AP reports many presidents enact things like commutations at the tail end of their terms to spotlight whatever issue they felt is most important, for Obama it’s legislative criminal justice reform:
Obama has long called for phasing out strict sentences for drug offenses, arguing they lead to excessive punishment and incarceration rates unseen in other developed countries. With Obama’s support, the Justice Department in recent years has directed prosecutors to rein in the use of harsh mandatory minimums.
Under the president’s administration, clemency criteria prioritizes “nonviolent offenders who have behaved well in prison, aren’t closely tied to gangs and would have received shorter sentences if they had been convicted a few years later.” Still, the New York University School of Law’s Clemency Resource Center says that of the 11,000 clemency petitions up for review by the Justice Department, only 1,500 meet this criteria for pardons.