Last month, President Obama expanded his push to curtail severe penalties in drug cases, commuting the sentences of eight federal inmates who were convicted of crack cocaine prior to the passing of the Fair Sentencing Act.
According to news reports, each inmate has been imprisoned for at least 15 years, and six were sentenced to life in prison.
We discussed this issue in August when Attorney General Eric Holder outlined his vision for how the Justice Department, as well as U.S. Attorney Offices throughout the country, would handle low-level drug cases.
Specifically, Holder no longer required that AUSAs list quantities of illicit substances in indictments for low-level drug offenses in order to avoid triggering mandatory minimum sentences. In that speech to the American Bar Association, he said his focus was on shorter prison sentences for nonviolent criminals, more programs to treat those convicted of low-level drug-related crimes and reductions in the number of crimes that carry “mandatory minimum sentences.”
President Obama’s pardons of these inmates is the first indication that the administration is paying more than lip service to their commitment to correct the disparity that minimum-mandatory sentences create in the criminal justice system.
President Obama indicated that one of the reasons for his pardons was that these inmates, had they been sentenced under the current Fair Sentencing Act, would have already served their time and paid their debt to society. Instead, he reasoned, they remained in prison, costing taxpayers millions of dollars a year.
Prior to the passing of this law, studies show that there was a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses, attributable in part to the unrelenting minimum mandatory sentences judges are limited to imposing in many drug cases.