WASHINGTON — President Obama shortened the sentences of 58 federal inmates Thursday, an indication that he intends to use his constitutional clemency power more routinely for the remainder of his presidency.
All of those granted early release had been convicted of some form of drug trafficking or laundering drug money. Most sold cocaine, and eighteen of the 58 had been serving life sentences.
The commutations are part of an effort by Obama’s Justice Department to rectify what it sees as overly punitive sentences from the war on drugs. Obama has now commuted the sentences of 306 federal inmates, greater than any president since Franklin Roosevelt.
But the commutations announced Thursday were notable not for their number but for their timing. As of the end of 2015, most of Obama’s 187 commutations had come in the month of December, often issued just before the Christmas holiday.
But so far this year, he’s issued 119 more, and Thursday’s round of clemency warrants comes just five weeks after the last round — the quickest turnaround for presidential commutations not related to national security since Obama has been president.
“You’re going to start seeing a lot more very quickly,” White House Counsel Neil Eggleston told the Washington newspaper Politico last month. “I think you’re going to start seeing them on a more regular basis. I did want to get a little out of the notion that each one had to be more than the one before because that’s sort of an artificial floor.”
The commutations have also accelerated because the resignation of former Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff, who had complained in her resignation letter of interference and second-guessing from Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillan Yates.
In a statement Thursday, Yates said the commutations would continue “as part of our broader efforts to effectuate criminal justice reform and be sure fairness and proportionality in sentencing.”