Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Obama Commutes Sentences Of 214 Federal Inmates


President Obama has ordered prison terms to be shortened for more than 200 federal inmates. It's the largest commutation of prison sentences in more than a century. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Dickey Joe Jackson had already spent more than 20 years behind bars, and he was facing many more when he got news of the President's commutation today. Jackson is 1 of 67 inmates serving life terms who had their sentences reduced. Even the prosecutor who tried Jackson says it's about time, arguing there's no sign Jackson is violent. He only turned to selling methamphetamine to pay for a bone marrow transplant for his son.

Advocates cheered Obama's decision to commute Jackson's sentence and those of 213 other prisoners. Kevin Ring, who is with the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, says for those inmates and their loved ones, today's like winning the lottery.

KEVIN RING: Some of the nicest letters we ever receive are emails from prisoners who just say, I just got clemency today. To think you're going to die in prison and then learn you may be home with your family in six months has got to be a pretty awesome feeling.

HORSLEY: With today's action, Obama has now granted commutations to more than 560 inmates, more than the last nine presidents combined. Over the last two years, Obama has been encouraging the Justice Department to pay special attention to clemency requests from non-violent drug offenders whose stiff sentences were issued under outdated laws. In many cases, Ring says, these inmates would have gotten less prison time had they been sentenced today.

RING: These sentences - they don't fit anymore. They're broken. They're wrong. We know they aren't the right sentences. So in our view, it's not so much mercy or compassion or leniency. It's just finally getting it right.

HORSLEY: Of the 214 inmates whose sentences were shortened today, some will be released quickly. Others will serve a shorter time, and some will be required to undergo additional drug treatment.

Earlier this summer a group of law professors wrote to the president, urging him to pick up the pace of commutations, pointing to more than a thousand additional federal inmates who meet his criteria to have their sentences reduced. White House Counsel Neil Eggleston agreed today the president's work on commutations is far from finished. In a nation of second chances, he says, you can expect to see more clemency grants before Obama leaves office. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.