Obama finally draws attention to prison reform

President Barack Obama will not only be the first president to visit a federal prison when he visits Oklahoma today, but has also commuted more sentences than the last four presidents combined — efforts calling attention to the administration’s role in prison reform.   

On Monday, Obama announced he would be commuting the sentences of 46 drug offenders, bringing his total number of commutations to 89, as reported by the New York Times. At a speech given to the NAACP in Philadelphia the next day, Obama discussed his plan to improve the juvenile and criminal justice systems, especially to reduce the racial disparity in prisons. 

Though some have called the president’s commutations “publicity stunts and political pandering,” as mentioned in the N.Y. Times, they are actually the first steps in fixing a system that hands out sentences harshly disproportionate to the crime. 

Regardless of one’s opinion on clemency, Obama’s initiative is based on creating a fairer justice system, which, as noted by the NAACP, as a nation with 25 percent of the world’s prisoners but only 5 percent of the world population, the U.S. desperately needs. 

As reported by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), one in 100 citizens are incarcerated. But this isn’t just a problem with capacity, as 80 percent of offenders abuse alcohol or drugs and 50 percent of inmates are considered clinically addicted. It’s clear drugs play a role in crime in the U.S.

While the effectiveness of clemency is questioned, as commutations don’t overturn a conviction, but only reduce a sentencing, it’s still a step forward in terms of challenging the existing mandatory minimum sentencing requirements.

For instance, as addressed by the American Civil Liberties Union, federal and state drug laws can require sentences of up to 30 years or even life for dealers and addicts, even for those of a lower level. 

Though Obama’s commutations don’t give nonviolent offenders a clean slate, many of those who received note of their commutations on Monday now don’t have to spend the rest of their lives in prison. 

The problem is only worsened when it thrives in a racially-biased structure. As reported by the NAACP, 14 million white people and 2.6 million black people report using illegal drugs, conversely, African-Americans are imprisoned at 10 times the rate of whites. 

More disturbing, blacks spend about as much time in prison for drug crimes as whites do for violent crimes, according to the non-profit Sentencing Project.   

In addition to WhiteHouse.gov’s suggestions for enforcing more probation strategies, such as Project HOPE, which aims to reduce drug use and keep people from returning to prison, the president also called for legislation to reduce mandatory minimum sentences, or to get rid of them altogether.

As reported by the Tampa Bay Times, three men from the Tampa area were given clemency Monday, two of whom were serving life sentences after the fall of a cocaine trafficking regime in St. Petersburg. In Florida, a total of 11 prisoners were granted clemency.

In the grand scheme of things, Obama’s actions seem to hardly chip away at the problem, especially since the Justice Department has received over 6,600 petitions for clemency, as reported in the N.Y. Times. 

However, it’s a good start in an effort to allow nonviolent offenders access to a better life.


Isabelle Cavazos is a senior majoring in English and Spanish.