WASHINGTON -- Calling America "a nation of second chances," President Barack Obama cut the prison sentences of 46 non-violent drug offenders on Monday in what the White House hopes will be just one prong of a broader push to make the criminal justice system fairer while saving the government money.
Fourteen of those whose sentences were commuted had been sentenced to life in prison and the vast majority to at least 20 years, the president said in a video released by the White House, adding that "their punishments didn't fit the crime."
"These men and women were not hardened criminals," he said, promising to lay out more ideas on criminal justice changes during a speech to the NAACP on Tuesday in Philadelphia.
Since Congress enacted mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes in the 1980s, the federal prison population has grown from 24,000 to more than 214,000, according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a group seeking sentencing changes.
And the costs, said Obama, are over $80 billion a year to incarcerate people who often "have only been engaged in nonviolent drug offenses."
While Obama has spoken off and on during his presidency about the need for smarter sentencing and other justice reforms, prospects for significant structural change have improved recently with growing interest among Republicans in Congress.
"Congress simply can't act fast enough," said Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. She said that while Obama's executive actions have picked off some of the most egregious sentencing inequities, significant legislative action is needed to stop the flow of people "going to prison year in and year out, serving too much time."
Republican support in any such effort is critical, Stewart said, likening it to a Nixon-goes-to-China moment. "Nobody's going to question a Republican's credibility on being tough on crime," she said.
Yet not all Republicans saw the commutations as a step in the right direction. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, accused the president of engaging in showmanship, publicity stunts and political pandering.
"Commuting the sentences of a few drug offenders is a move designed to spur headlines, not meaningful reform," Sensenbrenner said.
Obama has issued 89 commutations during his presidency, most of them to non-violent offenders sentenced for drug crimes under now-outdated sentencing guidelines. A commutation leaves the conviction in place, but reduces the punishment. The sentences of those who received commutations on Monday will expire on Nov. 10, 2015.
Obama wrote a personal letter to each of those whose sentence was commuted.
In a letter to Jerry Bailey, sentenced to 30 years for conspiracy to violate laws against crack-cocaine, Obama praised Bailey for showing the potential to turn his life around.
"Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity," Obama wrote.
Obama announced the commutations in a video produced and posted online by the White House, preventing journalists from being able to question him about the move. The White House and political candidates frequently use the same technique, with some presidential hopefuls even announcing their candidacy via scripted videos.
The 46 sentence reductions are the most presidential commutations in a single day since at least the administration of President Lyndon Johnson, according to the White House. Overall, Obama has commuted sentences of 89 people, surpassing the combined number of commutations granted by Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
They represent a sliver of all those seeking clemency: Justice Department statistics show that roughly 2,100 commutation petitions have been received so far this fiscal year, and about 7,900 are pending.
White House counsel Neil Eggleston predicted the president would issue even more commutations before leaving office, but added that "clemency alone will not fix decades of overly punitive sentencing policies."
The president this week is devoting considerable attention to criminal justice. In addition to his speech Tuesday in Philadelphia, he is to become the first sitting president to visit a federal prison when he goes to the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution outside of Oklahoma City on Thursday. He'll meet with both law enforcement officials and inmates.
In recent years, long drug sentences have come under increasing scrutiny and downward trends already are taking shape.
The Supreme Court has made sentencing guideline ranges advisory rather than mandatory. Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010 to cut penalties for crack cocaine offenses. And last year, the independent Sentencing Commission, which sets sentencing policy, reduced guideline ranges for drug crimes and applied those retroactively.
Advocates for fair sentences expressed hope the president's actions would have a ripple effect in the states.
"I hope this sends a message to governors of states that have the power to grant clemencies to those who deserve a chance to be reunited with their families," said Anthony Papa of the Drug Policy Alliance. Papa was granted clemency in New York in 1997 after serving 12 years under state drug laws.
Obama commutes sentences for 46; presses for justice changes