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Obama cuts the sentences of 330 drug crime inmates on his last day as President

It was the last time he planned to exercise his presidential powers in any significant way.

Image: Charles Rex Arbogast

IN A LAST major act as president, Barack Obama cut short the sentences of 330 federal inmates convicted of drug crimes today, 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 U.S. history, the White House said. 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 as second chance.

For Obama, it was the last time he planned to exercise his presidential powers in any significant way.

Commutations

Camp Hill Prison Pennsylvania Source: Marc Levy/PA

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 Thursday 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 lawyer. “He’s a good person who, like so many people, got involved in something he’s been punished for already.”

Personal oversight

Obama personally reviewed the case of every inmate who received a commutation, often poring over case files in the evenings or calling his attorneys into his office to discuss specifics. Although a backlog of cases remains as Obama leaves office, his administration reviewed all applications that came in by an end-of-August deadline, officials said.

Eggleston said Obama had been particularly motivated to grant clemency to inmates who had turned themselves around in prison. He said one inmate had trained and obtained a commercial driver’s license through a prison program, despite having a life sentence that all but assured he’d never get to use it.

Read: They had a ‘mighty time’ in 2011 – but what’s life like now in Obama’s ancestral village?

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Associated Press

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