The prison terms of eight drug offenders who were sentenced "under an unfair system" were commuted today, President Barack Obama said.
"If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society," Obama said in a written statement Thursday afternoon, citing the Fair Sentencing Act he signed in 2011. "Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year."
The president commuted the life sentence of Clarence Aaron of Mobile, Ala., whose term is now set to expire in April 2014. Aaron was sentenced in 1993 in the Southern District of Alabama on conspiracy and possession charges. Propublica and The Washington Post spotlighted Aaron's case in May 2012.
"Each of them has served more than 15 years in prison," Obama said today. "In several cases, the sentencing judges expressed frustration that the law at the time did not allow them to issue punishments that more appropriately fit the crime."
Critics in recent months implored the president to make greater use of his clemency authority. Obama "has been notably unwilling to use that power," Sanford Levinson, a professor at the University of Texas Law School, wrote in a letter to The New York Times regarding an American Civil Liberties Union report on incarceration.
Aaron, Stephanie George and Reynolds Wintersmith, Jr. were featured in the ACLU report. Obama today commuted each of their life sentences. Read the full list of the president's 13 pardons and eight commutations here.
“President Obama today gave several Americans who were unnecessarily sentenced to die behind bars the chance to reunite with their families," Vanita Gupta, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a written statement. "This is one important step toward undoing the damage that extreme sentencing has done to so many in our criminal justice system."
Crowell & Moring partner Tim Means in Washington, a lawyer for George, said in a statement the president's clemency announcement "is a victory in every sense of the word. Justice has cried out for Stephanie George, an extraordinarily deserving individual who is now able to move forward with her life." George was sentenced in 1997 in the Northern District of Florida to life in prison.
Means said the commutations address "a critical problem with our criminal justice system that is formulaically mandating extremely lengthy sentences that are wholly disproportionate to the offenses in question."
Obama said in his statement that "commuting the sentences of these eight Americans is an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness. But it must not be the last. In the new year, lawmakers should act on the kinds of bipartisan sentencing reform measures already working their way through Congress."
Sentencing law scholar Douglas Berman, who teaches at the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University, said in a post at his Sentencing Law and Policy that he was "quite pleased" the president was "finally using his constitutional clemency powers in a truly consequential and meaningful way."
Eyeing the horizon, Berman said that "for every new bit of post-FSA fairness achieved by these commutations, a thousand other defendants (and families) must continue to live with the consequences of a reform that has been interpreted only to prevent future injustices and not fix past ones."