“We must remember that these are individuals—sons, daughters, parents, and in many cases, grandparents—who have taken steps toward rehabilitation and who have earned their second chance,” White House counsel Neil Eggleston wrote in a blog post Tuesday.
The clemency grants are part of a major initiativelaunched in Mr. Obama’s second term to help reduce the size of the nation’s prison population, especially for offenders who had committed nonviolent drug offenses.
“I thought it was very important for us to send a clear message that we believe in the principles behind criminal justice reform,” Mr. Obama said at a news conference at the Pentagon earlier this month about his clemency push.
Like in previous grants, most of those granted commuted sentences were serving time for nonviolence drug offenses. However, more than a dozen of the individuals granted a commutation in this round also were convicted of firearms offenses.
In addition to grants of commutation, Mr. Obama has proposed an overhaul of the criminal justice system that would reduce sentences and aim to cut recidivism. A bill working its way through Congress has found broad support in both the Republican and Democratic parties, though it has yet to pass either the full House or the Senate.
Mr. Obama’s power to act unilaterally on criminal justice is limited by the fact that most prisoners in the U.S. are serving time at the state and local level. Of the more than two million inmates in U.S. prisons and jails, only about 194,000 are held in federal prisons and eligible for presidential action.
The Constitution grants the president the power either to shorten sentences through a commutation or grant a pardon that entirely expunges the initial offense from the convict’s record. Mr. Obama has been far more reluctant to use his pardon powers.
Pardoned individuals are usually able to vote, obtain gun licenses and apply for jobs without the burden of a criminal record. Commuted offenders aren't.
To date, Mr. Obama has pardoned just 70 individuals—well below the number of pardons granted by other recent presidents. His predecessor, George W. Bush, granted 189 pardons during his eight years in office, while President Bill Clinton granted nearly 400.