Obama Has Commuted More Sentences Than the Last 9 Presidents Combined

But he's still fallen far short of what criminal justice reform advocates say is needed.

President Barack Obama speaking in Atlanta on August 1, 2016Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP


By commuting the sentences of 214 inmates on Wednesday—including 67 people serving life sentences, almost all for nonviolent drug offenses—the White House announced that President Barack Obama has now granted more commutations than the previous nine presidents combined.

Yesterday’s batch of commutations represents the most ever granted in a single move since 1900. It raises Obama’s total number of commutations to 562 since entering office.

In a blog post, White House Counsel to the President Neil Eggleston noted that the individuals freed yesterday had been convicted under “outdated and unduly harsh” sentencing laws. In 2014, the Obama administration announced that it would make “meaningful changes to this country’s approach to clemency,” which was under scrutiny after pardon attorney Ronald L. Rodgers, responsible for advising on clemency cases, was removed from office for failing to accurately share key information in a high-profile clemency case. During Rogers’ tenure, which ended in April 2014, Obama had granted fewer clemencies than any other modern president.

As Eggleston highlighted, Obama has now commuted more sentences than any president in almost a century. That said, thousands of inmates remain in federal prison for nonviolent drug charges, many of them holdovers from the draconian sentencing laws that came out of the war on drugs. In 2011, then-Attorney General Eric Holder announced a new clemency initiative, claiming that 10,000 inmates “were potentially going to be released” as a result. But 562 is a far cry from that. And as Mother Jones has reported, dozens more are serving life sentences without parole for marijuana-only crimes, a group of people whom advocates view as an obvious choice for the kind of clemency reform that’s been promised. (One marijuana lifer, Ramon Gonzalez, had his sentence commuted in yesterday’s round.)

The Office of the Pardon Attorney, which is responsible for vetting and recommending clemency petitions to the White House, has long been accused of being dominated by career prosecutors, shrouded in secrecy, and hampered by a restrictive, bureaucratic culture. In January, the previous pardon attorney, Deborah Leff, left her post in frustration after just two years on the job, writing in her resignation letter, “Given that the Department has not fulfilled its commitment to provide the resources necessary for my office to make timely and thoughtful recommendations on clemency to the President, given your statement that the needed staff will not be forthcoming, and given that I have been instructed to set aside thousands of petitions for pardon and traditional commutation, I cannot fulfill my responsibilities as Pardon Attorney.”

In May, Quartz pointed out that although Obama has been racking up a historic number of commutations, he has been “one of the least merciful presidents ever” when it comes to pardons, which, rather than simply reducing a sentence, wipe an individual’s criminal past clean.

As Eggelston himself wrote yesterday on the White House blog, “Our work is far from finished.”