Barack Obama has now commuted the sentences of more than 1,000 people in prison for drug crimes

Scrambling to push his agenda.
Scrambling to push his agenda.
Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
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US president Barack Obama is moving quickly to make his last stamp on the criminal justice system before leaving office in January. He just reduced the sentences of 79 people in prison for non-violent drug crimes, bringing his total to more than 1,000 commutations.

The Obama administration has been commuting the sentences of non-violent drug offenders in higher numbers than any recent president, while criminal justice reform efforts are stalled by lawmakers in Congress. A statement by the White House said the actions are meant to reduce the effect of “outdated and unduly harsh sentencing laws.”

Unlike pardons, commutations don’t officially constitute forgiveness of a crime. They reduce a prisoner’s sentence but don’t necessarily let them go free immediately. The details of the most recent 79 commutations weren’t immediately clear. When it comes to outright pardons, Obama is actually one of the least merciful US presidents.

After Obama announced his clemency initiative in 2014, the White House has been flooded by applications. According to Reuters, as of Aug. 31, there were 6,000 pending letters pleading with the president for a commutation. President-elect Donald Trump, who ran on a “law-and-order” platform, is not likely to continue Obama’s effort. The justice department said it will continue recommending commutations until Obama leaves office.

Criminal justice advocates welcome the newest round of commutations, but they have criticized the White House for its slow pace on the matter, and demand that he step up the initiative.

“Clemency is the one administrative action President Obama can take that will not be overturned by an incoming Trump administration,” Jessica Jackson Sloan, director of #cut50, a criminal justice reform group, said in a statement. “We are grateful to the President for the 79 clemencies that were granted today – a handful of families were granted hope as the holidays approach. But there is much, much more the President can and must do.”