President Barack Obama gave dozens of low-level drug offenders a badly needed reprieve in July, granting commutations that will allow them to leave federal prison early.

obama smilingMost of the inmates were sentenced under earlier, harsher laws that imposed mandatory minimum prison terms for non-violent drug crimes. Obama said it wasn’t fair to keep them behind bars when they would already be home had they been sentenced under current law.

“I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around,” Obama said in a letter to each of the prisoners. “Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity. It will not be easy, and you will confront many who doubt people with criminal records can change. Perhaps even you are unsure of how you will adjust to your new circumstances. But remember that you have the capacity to make good choices.”

The president’s decision marks the latest development in a fast-growing movement to reform the nation’s criminal justice system. During the dark days of the War on Drugs, the federal government piled on harsh mandatory sentences for even petty drug offenses, including many marijuana crimes.

46 federal sentences ended

The commutations end the sentences of 46 federal inmates, both men and women, the White House said. At least one of them was serving a life sentence for a non-violent drug offense.

The announcement came just days before Obama was scheduled to become the first sitting president to set foot inside a federal prison. He planned to use the occasion to give an interview to Vice on his hopes for justice reform.

Among other problems, reformers argue criminal laws and penalties disproportionately target black men, even though drug use is relatively similar among different racial groups. Both blacks and whites use marijuana at the same rate; Latios actually use slightly less.

Neil Eggleston, counsel to the president, said Obama was using the commutations as a first step in addressing a disconnection between crime and punishment.

“Federal sentencing practices can, in too many instances, lead non-violent drug offenders to spend decades, if not life, in prison,” Eggleston wrote on a White House blog. “Now, don’t get me wrong, many people are justly punished for causing harm and perpetuating violence in our communities. But, in some cases, the punishment required by law far exceeded the offense. These unduly harsh sentences are one of the reasons the President is committed to using all the tools at his disposal to remedy unfairness in our criminal justice system.”

President can grant pardons to federal prisoners

JailObama has the legal authority to grant pardons and commutations, but only to prisoners incarcerated under federal law. State prisoners can only be freed by their governors.

Unlike a pardon, which both frees an inmate and erases his criminal history, a commutation only ends the sentence, not the criminal record. This means former inmates whose sentences were commuted may still have a very difficult time finding jobs, securing benefits, or renting apartments, among other problems.

Obama has now freed 90 prisoners by commutation or pardon. It’s a relatively small number compared to other presidents, but it will likely grow as the president could issue even more pardons and commutations before leaving office.

Unforunately, Obama’s action affects only a tiny minority of federal prisoners, even those behind bars for non-violent offenses involving marijuana. Freeing those inmates, both from prison and from the shackles of a criminal record, would likely require a single grant of mass amnesty.

If Obama or his successor were to issue such a grant, it would likely only be after cannabis is legal in many more places. The last mass amnesty was issued by President Jimmy Carter in the wake of the Vietnam War.

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