Obama pardons 22 convicts in one day, including a man who was sentenced to life for marijuana offenses
President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 22 individuals on Tuesday, more than doubling the number of commutations he has issued in the six-plus years he's been in office.
The men and women granted the reprieves had been imprisoned under an "outdated sentencing regime," the administration concluded. Eight of the 22 inmates had been sentenced to life imprisonment and would have died behind bars.
Leading up to Tuesday's announcement, the president has tried to revamp his administration's approach to clemency, telling The Huffington Post in a recent interview that he felt recipients should more broadly reflect the entire applicant pool and not lean toward well-connected white-collar criminals. Those granted clemency on Tuesday were all sentenced to jail for intent to distribute an illegal drug, with 14 of those cases involving possession or distribution of cocaine.
"Had they been sentenced under current laws and policies, many of these individuals would have already served their time and paid their debt to society," White House counsel Neil Eggleston said in a statement shared in advance with The Huffington Post. "Because many were convicted under an outdated sentencing regime, they served years -- in some cases more than a decade -- longer than individuals convicted today of the same crime."
The president sent a letter to each of the commutation recipients encouraging them to take advantage of their post-prison opportunity. An administration official said that this was the first time Obama has sent such letters during his presidency.
"I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around. 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," the letter reads. "But remember that you have the capacity to make good choices. By doing so, you will affect not only your own life, but those close to you. You will also influence, through your example, the possibility that others in your circumstances get their own second chance in the future."
Tuesday's announcement marks the beginning of a more aggressive approach on clemency from the White House, which has faced persistent criticism for being slow to grant pardons and commutations. Until Tuesday, Obama had only commuted the sentences of 21 people and pardoned 64, out of thousands of applications received.
The Justice Department expanded its criteria for clemency applicants last year, prioritizing defendants who would have likely been given a shorter prison term had they been sentenced today and who have served at least 10 years behind bars, have had good conduct in prison, have no significant ties to criminal enterprises and have no history of violence or significant criminal history.
Advocates for greater clemency have argued that Obama should follow through on the underlying principles of the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act that he himself signed, which reduced the disparity in federal treatment of crimes involving crack cocaine and cocaine powder. Tuesday's commutations suggest those advocates are being heard.
One of the prisoners whose sentence was commuted, Francis Darrell Hayden, had been sentenced to life in prison for growing marijuana back in 2002. Another, Donel Clark, was sentenced in 1994 and told The Huffington Post he had taken a job as a crack “cook” in his friend’s kitchen to support his family.
Four of the prisoners granted clemency were represented by the Clemency Project 2014, a group of lawyers that works to provide pro-bono legal assistance to prisoners applying to have their sentences reduced. Cynthia Roseberry, the group's manager, declined to disclose their identities. The organization "continues to submit petitions at an increasing pace and looks forward to more regular grants by the President," Roseberry said.