President Barack Obama granted 79 more commutations Tuesday, bringing his total to more than 1,000 during his time in office, the Washington Post reports.
The president has granted commutations to more prisoners, the majority of whom were nonviolent drug offenders, than the last 11 presidents combined. Obama has committed to using the tools at his disposal, including presidential clemency, to remedy the unfairness at the heart of the criminal-justice system.
“The power to grant pardons and commutations … embodies the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance after having made a mistake in their lives that led to a conviction under our laws,” a quote from the president on the clemency website reads.
Obama has commuted the sentences of 1,023 men and women incarcerated under harsh and outdated sentencing laws; 342 of those individuals, or roughly one-third, were serving life sentences.
“The president’s gracious act of mercy today with his latest round of commutations is encouraging,” Brittany Byrd, a Texas attorney who has represented several inmates who have received clemency since Obama’s initiative began in 2014, told the Post. “He is taking historic steps under his groundbreaking clemency initiative to show the power of mercy and belief in redemption. Three hundred and forty-two men and women were set to die in prison. The president literally saved their lives.”
Of those who received clemency Tuesday, 18 were serving life sentences.
The Post reports that the White House and the Justice Department received criticism this year from advocates of sentencing-policy changes who said that the administration was moving too slowly in granting commutations to inmates who met the clemency criteria; this year alone, Obama has granted 839 commutations.
“At the risk of sounding ungrateful, we say, ‘Thanks, but please hurry,’” Kevin Ring, vice president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, told the Post. “We know there are thousands more who received outdated and excessive mandatory sentences, and we think they all deserve to have their petitions considered before the president leaves office. Petitioners are starting to get anxious because they know the president is, in prison parlance, a short-timer.”
Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates makes the final decision in the Justice Department about whether to recommend clemency to the president. She said that Tuesday’s milestone is “more than just a statistic.”
“There are 1,000 lives behind that number,” Yates said. “One thousand people who have been sentenced under unnecessarily harsh and outdated sentencing laws that sent many of them to prison for 20, 40 years, sometimes even life, for nonviolent drug offenses.”
Shauna Barry-Scott of Youngstown, Ohio, was sentenced to 20 years in 2005 for selling crack cocaine. She described to the Post what it felt like to get the news that she had been granted clemency.
“A million thoughts ran through my mind,” Barry-Scott said, “wondering what the world was going to be like after being away for so many years; most of all realizing I would finally be reunited with my children after all this time.”
Read more at the Washington Post.