U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made headlines in August when he announced wholesale changes in how federal prosecutors will handle low-level drug offenses; particularly those involving possession and small-time dealers. The rationale behind the change was that the past approach was not working in terms of deterring potential offenders, and had only resulted in increasing prison costs while destroying communities.
The announcement came on the heels of a law passed by Congress two years ago that changed the way crack cocaine offenses would be sentenced. (Sentences for crack offenses were ten times as harsh compared to powder cocaine offenses.) However, it appears that the new law has not had such a significant effect on reducing sentences.
Against this backdrop, President Obama’s recent announcement regarding several federal inmates could be considered surprising. The president pardoned several inmates serving life-sentences because of prior crack cocaine convictions. Several were highlighted in a recent ACLU report about the thousands of federal inmates who were serving life sentences due to non-violent crimes. Their stories were eerily similar, and tragic. All were between 39 and 43 years of age, had been offered plea deals in exchange for testimony and were not eligible for parole based on prior sentencing guidelines.
The pardons not only give them a second chance at life, but it marks another step in the right direction with regard to sentencing reform for federal drug crimes. It remains to be seen whether other offenders will be pardoned in the future. Hopefully, fewer drug offenders will face these types of sentences.
Source: HuffingtonPost.com, “Obama commutes sentences of eight people convicted of crack cocaine offenses,” Saki Knafo, December 20, 2013