President Barack Obama announced two pardons and 95 commutations Friday afternoon, with the vast majority of his clemency going to dealers of crack cocaine.
The grant of clemency, timed to coincide with the Christmas holiday, is the largest such grant of Obama’s presidency, and takes the total number of sentences he’s commuted up to 184. The grant comes on the heels of 46 commutations Obama issued last July.
More than 40 of the commutations are for life sentences, and most of the beneficiaries will be released in April.
Despite the large number of commutations, a look at the list of beneficiaries reveal there is very little variety in the crimes they committed. For 72 of them, one of their offenses was trafficking in cocaine, and of these, all but a handful were specifically convicted of trafficking in crack cocaine (often described as “cocaine base” in criminal law).
Nine others were trafficking methamphetamine exclusively, and four others had only marijuana-related offenses. Nineteen had firearms offenses of some kind, mostly for illegal possession or for carrying a weapon while committing a drug crime.
Obama isn’t the first to give commutations or pardons to cocaine dealers (George W. Bush and Bill Clinton both pardoned a few), but his decision to make clemency for them a strong priority is unique.
Obama’s focus on crack dealers reflects a push by his administration grant clemency to those punished harshly by the tough drug laws of the 80s and 90s. Specifically, Obama wants to remedy the alleged injustice of crack dealers being punished more severely than dealers of powder cocaine.
The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, passed at the height of the crack epidemic in American cities, created a 5-year minimum sentence for the possession of just 5 grams of crack, while powder cocaine only triggered a similar sentence at 500 grams. Similar sentencing disparities also existed for higher-level crimes.
Black politicians strongly supported the original law as a weapon to fight the harm caused by crack in black communities. But critics argue the law was racist in nature, because blacks were more likely to buy and sell crack cocaine, while more-expensive powder cocaine was used more frequently by whites.
In 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act altered the law to make crack laws more similar to those for powder cocaine, and since then Obama has been looking into cutting sentences for those convicted of crack offenses.
In a White House blog post Friday the Obama administration said commutations mean the president has shortened sentences for more people than the past five presidents combined. While that’s true, it’s largely because earlier presidents have strongly preferred full pardons over commutations.
Obama has so far granted fewer than 70 pardons, far below the pace set by earlier presidents. George W. Bush, for instance, pardoned 189 people, Bill Clinton pardoned 396, and George H.W. Bush pardoned 74, even though he served just a single term.
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