As of June 2016, President Obama has commuted the sentences of 348 persons, a number greater than that of the past seven presidents combined. Of these 348 persons, many were serving lengthy sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. Had these offenders been sentenced under current sentencing guidelines, they would have already served their time and been released from prison.
At the time of their sentencing, however, the United States was the height of the War on Drugs and drug crime defendants were sentenced under overly punitive sentencing laws. Various programs and legislation--such as the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act and the Omnibus Crime Act of 1994--instituted harsher penalties for drug crimes in an effort to control the rising use of drugs in the United States. As a result of these laws, from 1980 to 2009, the number of persons incarcerated for drug crimes increased from 40,000 to 500,000--an amount larger than the amount of all incarcerated persons in 1980.
Phillip Emmert, whose prison sentence was commuted by President George W. Bush, has served as inspiration for decreasing the sentences of nonviolent offenders. At the age of 27, Emmert was convicted of conspiracy to deliver methamphetamine. The court sentenced him to 27 years in prison without parole; had his sentence not been commuted, he would have left prison at 54 with half of his life spent behind bars. After 14 years in prison, Emmert's sentence was commuted. Today, despite the many challenges that face convicted felons returning to the community, Emmert is gainfully employed at a VA hospital. He is also now able to provide support to his wife, who was paralyzed in a car accident during his time in prison.
Although President Obama's commutations of the sentences of offenders like Emmert has been generally applauded, it is a small fix to a large problem. In response to increasing criticism, Congress has initiated bipartisan efforts to create legislation that lowers the penalties for nonviolent drug crimes.
By George Zulakis, Attorney at Law
& Elizabeth Kingston, Law Clerk