The total number of commuted sentences for non-violent drug offenders approved by President Obama has reached more than 1,000, and he intends to continue the practice until he leaves office while criminal justice reform is tied up in Congress. This number of drug-related commutations is already far higher than that reached by any other modern president. According to the Obama administration, the commutations are an effort to address out-of-date and overly punitive sentencing laws.
A commutation is not the same as a pardon, and in contrast, Obama has issued fewer pardons than most presidents. Commutations reduce the time a person serves in prison. This clemency initiative was first announced in 2014, and as of August, 6,000 letters asking for commutations were waiting for review.
Advocates for reform in the criminal justice system praised Obama’s efforts so far but criticized the pace of the process particularly since it is one of the few actions Obama can carry out that cannot be overturned by the next administration. The director of one criminal justice reform organization called on Obama to grant many more commutations before he leaves office.
As this story demonstrates, sentencing for even nonviolent drug crimes can be severe. People who are facing drug charges may want to talk to an attorney about whether it is possible to get their charges reduced or dismissed. They might be offered a plea bargain, but if the initial charge is a harsh one anyway, the sentence accompanying the plea bargain may still be a long one. They might want to go to court, plead not guilty and fight the charges instead.