Obama Has Commuted More Sentences Than the Last 9 Presidents Combined

But he’s still fallen far short of what criminal justice reform advocates say is needed.

President Barack Obama speaking in Atlanta on August 1, 2016Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.


By commuting the sentences of 214 inmates on Wednesday—including 67 people serving life sentences, almost all for nonviolent drug offenses—the White House announced that President Barack Obama has now granted more commutations than the previous nine presidents combined.

Yesterday’s batch of commutations represents the most ever granted in a single move since 1900. It raises Obama’s total number of commutations to 562 since entering office.

In a blog post, White House Counsel to the President Neil Eggleston noted that the individuals freed yesterday had been convicted under “outdated and unduly harsh” sentencing laws. In 2014, the Obama administration announced that it would make “meaningful changes to this country’s approach to clemency,” which was under scrutiny after pardon attorney Ronald L. Rodgers, responsible for advising on clemency cases, was removed from office for failing to accurately share key information in a high-profile clemency case. During Rogers’ tenure, which ended in April 2014, Obama had granted fewer clemencies than any other modern president.

As Eggleston highlighted, Obama has now commuted more sentences than any president in almost a century. That said, thousands of inmates remain in federal prison for nonviolent drug charges, many of them holdovers from the draconian sentencing laws that came out of the war on drugs. In 2011, then-Attorney General Eric Holder announced a new clemency initiative, claiming that 10,000 inmates “were potentially going to be released” as a result. But 562 is a far cry from that. And as Mother Jones has reported, dozens more are serving life sentences without parole for marijuana-only crimes, a group of people whom advocates view as an obvious choice for the kind of clemency reform that’s been promised. (One marijuana lifer, Ramon Gonzalez, had his sentence commuted in yesterday’s round.)

The Office of the Pardon Attorney, which is responsible for vetting and recommending clemency petitions to the White House, has long been accused of being dominated by career prosecutors, shrouded in secrecy, and hampered by a restrictive, bureaucratic culture. In January, the previous pardon attorney, Deborah Leff, left her post in frustration after just two years on the job, writing in her resignation letter, “Given that the Department has not fulfilled its commitment to provide the resources necessary for my office to make timely and thoughtful recommendations on clemency to the President, given your statement that the needed staff will not be forthcoming, and given that I have been instructed to set aside thousands of petitions for pardon and traditional commutation, I cannot fulfill my responsibilities as Pardon Attorney.”

In May, Quartz pointed out that although Obama has been racking up a historic number of commutations, he has been “one of the least merciful presidents ever” when it comes to pardons, which, rather than simply reducing a sentence, wipe an individual’s criminal past clean.

As Eggelston himself wrote yesterday on the White House blog, “Our work is far from finished.”

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. It's our first time asking for an outpouring of support since screams of FAKE NEWS and so much of what Trump stood for made everything we do so visceral. Like most newsrooms, we face incredibly hard budget realities, and it's unnerving needing to raise big money when traffic is down.

So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate