California residents may be aware that President Obama pardoned or commuted the sentences of more federal prisoners than any other chief executive in U.S. history. Obama brought the total number of commutations granted during his eight years in the Oval Office to 1,715 on Jan. 18 when he reduced the sentences of 330 inmates as one of his last acts as president. During his eight years he freed 568 federal prisoners who faced spending the rest of their lives behind bars.
Reports indicate that Obama took a personal interest in the cases of the inmates involved, and he was particularly drawn to situations where individuals had worked to turn their lives around while in prison. Only federal inmates who had already spent 10 years in prison and had behaved well during that time were eligible for a sentence commutation under Obama's initiative.
Obama has been repeatedly frustrated in his efforts to address criminal justice reform and mass incarceration. An increasingly partisan Congress has been reluctant to tackle these issues, and the Fair Sentencing Act is the only major piece of criminal justice legislation that Obama has been able to sign. The 2010 law reduced the disproportionately harsh mandatory minimum sentences handed down to those convicted of possessing or selling crack cocaine. While Obama may not have been able to champion a sweeping criminal justice bill, he was able to rein in federal prosecutors and steer them away from excessively harsh sentencing recommendations.
Many individuals facing drug possession charges elect to enter into plea agreements rather than take their chances in court and face the possibility of spending decades behind bars, and experienced criminal defense attorneys may recommend such arrangements when the evidence against their clients is clear. However, they could seek to have drug charges dismissed when police may have violated constitutional protections or prosecutors are basing their cases on possibly unreliable evidence such as accomplice testimony.
Source: The American Civil Liberties Union, "Fair Sentencing Act", accessed on Jan. 25, 2017