Obama Commutes Sentences of Long-Imprisoned Nonviolent Drug Offenders

Wednesday, July 15, 2015
Katrina Smith, one of 46 prisoners to be released early (photo: Facebook)

President Barack Obama on Monday announced that he will commute the sentences of 46 prisoners, all serving at least 15-year sentences and in some cases far longer, who were convicted of nonviolent drug crimes.


All but one of the crimes involved cocaine, usually crack cocaine. Forty-one were serving time for cocaine; two for cocaine and marijuana; one for cocaine, marijuana and heroin; one for cocaine and methamphetamine; and one for just marijuana.


“These men and women were not hardened criminals,” Obama said. “So their punishments didn’t fit the crime.”


The sentences are a relic of the “War on Drugs,” in which legislators wanting to appear to be tough on crime enacted sentencing laws that disproportionately affected black and Hispanic defendants because they punished crack cocaine offenses much more severely than those involving powder cocaine, traditionally a drug used by whites.


“The drug war has been a war on people of color,” and policies like mandatory minimum sentences “have really decimated these communities,” Michael Collins, policy manager at Drug Policy Alliance, told The New York Times.


The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act (pdf) removed much of the disparity between sentences for the different types of the same drug, but hundreds are still incarcerated under the old system.


One of the more prominent prisoners whose sentence was commuted was Katrina Smith, whose son, Demaryius Thomas, plays for the Denver Broncos. She has been locked up since he was 11. The prisoners will all be released Nov. 10.


The 46 commutations were the most issued in a single day since July 26, 1935, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt commuted 151 sentences, according to The New York Times. Obama has now commuted the sentences of 89 prisoners, which is the most by a president since Lyndon Johnson, who commuted 226 sentences. Obama also has commuted more sentences than the last four presidents combined.

-Steve Straehley, Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Obama Commutes Sentences for 46 Drug Offenders (by Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Gardiner Harris, New York Times)

President Obama Grants Commutations (U.S. Department of Justice)

Demaryius Thomas’ Mother Has Prison Sentence Commuted by Barack Obama (by James Montgomery, Rolling Stone)


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