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Obama Shortens Sentences of 79 More for Low-Level Drug Offenses

Criminal justice overhaul unlikely while he's in office

President Barack Obama on Tuesday commuted the sentences of 79 more individuals who he determined were serving “harsh” sentences under “outdated” laws.

The adjustments are the latest of more than 1,000 that Obama has issued during his presidency, mostly for low-level drug offenses. The president has commuted select criminal sentences and granted clemencies at a rapid pace, aiming to make a statement about the need for a comprehensive criminal justice overhaul, although prospects for such legislation are highly unlikely during his remaining time.

All of the sentences he shortened on Tuesday were for drug-related offenses.

“At the heart of America is the idea that we’re all imperfect. We all make mistakes. We have to take responsibility and learn from those mistakes,” Obama said in a written statement. “And we as a society have to make sure that people who do take responsibility for their mistakes are able to earn a second chance to contribute to our communities and our country.

“It’s the right thing to do. It’s the smart thing to do,” he added. “Now it’s up to good minds on both sides of the aisle to come together to restore fairness in our criminal justice system, use our tax dollars more effectively and give second chances to those who have earned them.”

[Cotton: Criminal Justice Bill ‘Dead’ in Congress]

Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates told reporters that governments at any level that keep people incarcerated for long periods of time for minor crimes waste taxpayer resources and divert funds from other purposes.

Sources in the criminal justice policy realm have said for months that they expect Obama to shorten even more sentences during his final months in the White House.

Justice Department officials are preparing additional petitions for Obama to review in his final weeks in office and expect that he will issue more drug-related sentence commutations, Yates told reporters on a conference call. White House officials on the same call said they have yet to get a clear read on whether the Trump administration will continue the trend.

Trump ran, in part, as a law-and-order candidate, vowing to bring stability to what he told voters were America’s crime-riddled and dangerous inner cities and suburban streets.

Obama has “done many more commutations than any other president, and I would expect that to continue,” Mark Holden, general counsel of Koch Industries, which is pushing for criminal justice changes, told CQ Roll Call earlier this year.

Justice Department data shows Obama has far outpaced modern presidents, with no one other than Lyndon B. Johnson issuing more than 100.

[Opinion: Overcrowded Prisons and Overdue Criminal Justice Reform]

The White House profiled a woman named Ramona Brant, who was sentenced to life in prison on her first offense, which she described in a YouTube video released by the White House as being tied to her then-boyfriend’s involvement with drugs.

When her boyfriend declined a plea agreement, law enforcement officials indicted her — but told her lawyer she would not serve jail time. When she showed up to court, her lawyer informed her things had changed.

“There’s a lot of women in prison who are there because of their association with [a] man, not necessarily that they were involved,” Brant said. “But the knowing is what makes us guilty.”

In a Facebook post shared with reporters but not yet posted on his official page, Obama wrote that “Ramona’s story should serve as a reminder to all of us that we need to reform the sentencing laws for drug crimes in this country.”

He continued, “It makes no sense for a nonviolent drug offender to be serving decades, or sometimes life, in prison. That’s not serving taxpayers, and it’s not serving the public safety. Instead, it burdens our already overcrowded prisons. And it hurts families like Ramona’s.”

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