As his days in office wane, U.S. President Barack Obama is pushing to commute sentences of non-violent drug offenders convicted under what the White House called “outdated and unduly harsh” sentencing laws. It has become the centerpiece of his effort to reform the country’s criminal-justice system, which has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
Last Friday, the President granted commutations to 42 convicted nonviolent offenders, bringing the total so far in his presidency to 348 commutations — more than any president has in nearly half a century. His predecessor, George W. Bush granted clemency in just 11 cases.
It’s not just Obama pushing for reform. Top Republicans and Democrats in Congress also support relaxing the sentencing laws that have tripled the federal and state prison populations in the last 30 years, reaching more than 1.56 million inmates at the end of 2014.
However in Congress, the main legislative effort for sentencing changes, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, has failed to pass either chamber of Congress. The bill would reduce long mandatory minimum sentences for many nonviolent drug crimes, give judges more control over the terms of punishment and provide inmates with more opportunities to get out early by participating in rehabilitation programs.