Obama commutes sentences of 95, pardons 2 in year-end spree

U.S. President Barack Obama holds his end of the year news conference at the White House in Washington December 18, 2015.

REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Last Updated Dec 18, 2015 3:53 PM EST

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama is commuting the sentences of 95 offenders and pardoning two more in a year-end spree.

Almost all of those receiving commuted sentences are non-violent drug offenders. Many were convicted of distributing or possessing cocaine or crack-cocaine. The commutations are the most that Mr. Obama has issued at once time.

Mr. Obama is also pardoning an Ohio man sentenced to probation in a counterfeiting case and a Virginia woman sentenced to home detention and supervised release in a bank fraud case.

The president has been responsible for commuting more prison sentences than his last two Oval Office predecessors.

"The president's decision today to commute the prison terms of 95 individuals is another sign of this administration's strong commitment to ensuring fairness in the criminal justice system," Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said in a statement.

Friday's announcement brings to 184 the number of inmates whose sentences have been commuted by the Obama administration, which has been working to build bipartisan support for reducing a federal prison population that eats up a large percentage of the Justice Department budget. Nearly half the roughly 200,000 convicts in federal custody are there for drug offenses, statistics show.

"I'm delighted for each and every one of these prisoners, and certainly this is the largest number of prisoners who have been released for a very long time," Mary Price, general counsel of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said in an interview.

At the same time, she added, "We would love to see more prisoners receive commutations."

In a turnaround from the 1980s and 1990s, when federal prosecutors routinely sought decades-long sentences for drug crimes, the Justice Department in recent years has been discouraging that kind of punishment for non-violent criminals.

As part of a 2013 initiative he called Smart on Crime, former Attorney General Eric Holder in 2013 directed prosecutors to rein in their use of harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug criminals.

And last year, concerned that too few deserving drug criminals were receiving consideration for clemency, Justice Department officials announced expanded criteria designed to encourage more inmates to apply and assigned a team of lawyers to review applications.

Though advocates applauded that move, the number of prisoners granted clemency since then has been fewer than what they had hoped.

"We know that there are a lot of prisoners who have asked the president to reduce their sentences who we haven't heard about," said Price, who called on Obama to "keep it up and step it up."

During his annual year-end press conference, the president mentioned his hopes of making progress on criminal justice reform, especially with strong Congressional consensus on the issue.

"The most liberal Democrats and the most conservative Republicans think this is the right thing to do," he said. "That's an area where we might be able to make a big difference."