WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama on Thursday commuted the sentences of eight people he said were serving unduly harsh drug sentences, in the most expansive use yet of his power to free inmates.
All eight were sentenced under old federal guidelines that treated convictions for crack cocaine offenses harsher than those involving the powder form of the drug. Obama also pardoned 13 others for various crimes.
The president signed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010 to cut penalties for crack cocaine offenses in order to reduce the disparity. But the act addressed only new cases, not old ones.
Obama said those whose sentences he commuted Thursday have served at least 15 years in prison, many under mandatory minimums that required judges to impose long sentences even if they didn’t think the time fit the crime.
“If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society,” Obama said in a written statement. “Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year.”
Obama ordered that most of the prisoners end their sentences on April 17. That includes 39-year-old Reynolds A. Wintersmith Jr., of Rockford, Ill., who was a teenager when he was sentenced in 1994 to life in prison for selling crack. His attorney, MiAngel Cody, said in a telephone interview that the judge told Wintersmith that giving such a sentence for a first-time offender gave him pause, but he had no choice under the law. Cody notified Wintersmith of the commutation in a phone call Thursday and said his elated client responded, “I intend to make President Obama proud.”
In the previous five years of his presidency, Obama had only commuted one drug sentence and pardoned 39 people.