In a last major act as president, Barack Obama cut short the sentences of 330 federal inmates convicted of drug crimes, bringing his bid to correct what he’s called a systematic injustice to a climactic close. With his final offer of clemency, Obama brought his total number of commutations granted to 1,715, more than any other president in US history, the White House said yesterday.
During his presidency Obama ordered free 568 inmates who had been sentenced to life in prison. “He wanted to do it. He wanted the opportunity to look at as many as he could to provide relief,” Neil Eggleston, Obama’s White House counsel, said in an interview in his West Wing office. “He saw the injustice of the sentences that were imposed in many situations, and he has a strong view that people deserve a second chance.”
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For Obama, it was the last time he planned to exercise his presidential powers in any significant way. At noon today, Obama will stand with President-elect Donald Trump as his successor is sworn in and Obama’s chapter in history comes to an end. Even as Obama issued the commutations, the White House had been mostly cleared out to make way for Trump. In between carrying out their last duties, the few remaining staffers were packing up belongings as photos of Obama were taken down from the walls of the West Wing corridors.
The final batch of commutations more in a single day than on any other day in US history was the culmination of Obama’s second-term effort to try to remedy the consequences of decades of onerous sentencing requirements that he said had imprisoned thousands of drug offenders for too long. Obama repeatedly called on Congress to pass a broader criminal justice fix, but lawmakers never acted.
For Bernard Smith, it’s a long-awaited chance to start over after 13 years away from his wife and children. Smith was working at a restaurant in Maryland in 2002 when his brother asked him to obtain marijuana for a drug deal. Though it was his brother who obtained the crack cocaine that the brothers then sold along with the marijuana to undercover officers, Smith was charged with the cocaine offense, too.
His 22-year sentence was far longer than his brother’s, owing to what the court called Smith’s “extensive criminal history” prior to the drug bust. Smith still had 10 years on his sentence when he was notified yesterday that the president, on his last day in office, was giving him another chance. “He’s looking to turn his life around,” said Michelle Curth, his attorney. “He’s a good person who, like so many people, got involved in something he’s been punished for already.”
Curth said that Smith had learned his lesson and owned up to his crime he asked for a commutation, she noted, not a pardon, which would have erased the original conviction. She said Smith hopes to get licensed in heating and air conditioning maintenance and has lined up family members to help with his adjustment.