Over the course of the next several weeks, President Obama is expected to issue executive orders granting the release of a significant number of non-violent drug offenders. The New York Times reports that the President’s latest move to provide clemency for prisoners serving unjust sentences due to violations of laws surrounding the Controlled Substances Act may result in the largest trend of commutations in American history.
Obama’s decision to exercise his authority to spring dozens of drug offenders from prison is an effort to rectify the beaten policies of the past. The consensus among many bipartisan lawmakers these days is that the penalties have been too harsh for these types of offenses, which has given Obama the motivation to take a special interest in opening the gates.
Unfortunately, while President Obama has done an admirable job freeing non-violent drug offenders throughout his years as Commander-in-Chief, his selections have been only a small percentage of the tens of thousands of clemency applications that have come flowing in to the White House. All of the applicants must undergo a complicated review before receiving the privilege of the presidential pen, so the process is a slow crawl – to say the least.
The good news, however, is that making changes to the criminal justice system is one of the top priorities for many of the presidential candidates seeking to run the nation in 2017. Both Democrats and Republicans are currently working on proposals aimed establishing a major overhaul to the system, with one of the most recent bills submitted on Capitol Hill seeking to no longer make drug possession a federal offense. In addition, the United States Sentencing Commission recently updated the rules that will eventually lead to a reduction of penalties for around 50,000 prisoners.
Neil Eggleston, legal counsel for the White House, said that lawmakers from every spectrum of the political jungle have “come together in order to focus attention on excessive sentences, the costs and the like, and the need to correct some of those excesses,” adding that President Obama envisions commutations as a finishing piece to the puzzle.
There is no denying that sentencing reform, as well as efforts to expedite the commutation process is long overdue. A recent report published by the American Civil Liberties Union indicates that the U.S. is the “world’s largest jailer,” with 25 percent of the global prison population residing right here in the Land of the Free. Embarrassingly, these numbers have skyrocketed 700 percent over the past several decades.
Since the early 1980s, the domestic War on Drugs has gone from imprisoning 50,000 drug offenders to well over 400,000 by the late 1990s, according to statistics from the Drug Policy Alliance. Most of these arrests stem from marijuana-related offenses, despite successful efforts over the past several years to legalize the herb for medicinal and recreational purposes across about half of the country.
Earlier this year, President Obama granted clemency for 22 prisoners convicted of non-violent drug crimes. The latest round of commutations is predicted to bring Obama’s total up to around 80.
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