ABOVE PHOTO: President Barack Obama (Frederic Legrand-COMEO / shutterstock.com )
By Eric Tucker
WASHINGTON — More than a decade ago, a judge bemoaned that the life sentence she was about to impose on Charles C. Brown was overly harsh. This week, relief finally came to Brown, along with 57 other offenders.
President Barack Obama commuted their prison terms as part of a broader push to revamp the criminal justice system and ease punishments for nonviolent drug convicts.
Eighteen of the 58 had been given life sentences and some have already spent more than decades in prison. Most are now due for release on Sept. 2. Others will be released over the next two years.
The latest wave — among them defendants convicted of either possessing or dealing cocaine, crack and methamphetamine — brings to 306 the number of inmates whose sentences Obama has commuted, the vast majority for drug crimes. The administration has said the pace of commutations is expected to increase as the end of Obama’s presidency nears.
The prisoners given commutations have been “granted a second chance to lead productive and law-abiding lives,” said Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates.
“Our clemency work is continuing as part of our broader efforts to effectuate criminal justice reform and ensure fairness and proportionality in sentencing,” Yates said.
Brown, a Rhode Island man, was sentenced in 2004 to life in prison on crack cocaine charges. The judge in the case, Mary Lisi, lamented during the sentencing hearing that federal law left her with “no choice” but to impose the life sentence because of the amount of crack involved and because of his prior convictions. She said the sentence was not what she would have imposed if it was up to her.
With Thursday’s announcement, Brown’s sentence now ends on Sept. 2.
The Obama administration has sought to reduce the prison population by encouraging shorter sentences and alternatives to prison for nonviolent criminals. It has supported legislation in Congress that would encourage judges to hand out lesser sentences more lenient than the federal mandatory minimums.
And under a 2013 initiative known as “Smart on Crime,” the Justice Department directed prosecutors to limit their use of mandatory minimum sentences, which closely tie the length of punishment to drug quantity.
In a statement accompanying the announcement, Obama said, “It just doesn’t make sense to require a nonviolent drug offender to serve 20 years, or in some cases, life, in prison.”
“An excessive punishment like that doesn’t fit the crime. It’s not serving taxpayers, and it’s not making us safer,” he added.
The Justice Department revamped the clemency process two years ago to encourage more applications from federal offenders. The administration broadened the criteria for eligible inmates, soliciting petitions from inmates who were convicted of nonviolent crimes, had served at least 10 years of their sentences and had been well behaved behind bars, among other considerations.
But advocates have repeatedly expressed concerns about what they term the slow pace of that process, saying it has denied thousands of deserving candidates a fair shot at an early release.
“I am pleased by today’s news, but I know that for every prisoner whose sentence the president commuted today, there are a hundred more who are equally worthy,” said Mary Price, general counsel of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.