Already well into record territory, President Obama used his last full day in office Thursday to open the prison gates one last time.
Obama commuted the sentences of 330 more inmates, bringing his combined tally to 1,715. That is more than the combined total of his 13 immediate predecessors — from Herbert Hoover through George W. Bush. Of those who got a break Thursday, 76 had gun convictions and 62 were serving life sentences. Seven also had convictions for engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise, which usually indicates a higher-level drug dealer.
“In the middle of a crime wave and an opioid epidemic of historic proportions he’s releasing drug dealers and violent felons. It seems counterintuitive.”
The move comes two days after Obama, commuted the sentences of 209 inmates and pardoned another 64 people. In many cases, the prisoners getting breaks will still have to serve substantial time before they get release.
But critics, some of whom had predicted that Obama might not be finished Tuesday, criticized the the latest action.
“Our take is the same as it has been,” said Steve Cook, president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys. “In the middle of a crime wave and an opioid epidemic of historic proportions he’s releasing drug dealers and violent felons. It seems counterintuitive.”
Rick Manning, president of Americans for Limited Government, said the latest round of commutations is part of a well-established, disturbing trend.
“This president has truly shown a complete disregard for the desire of the American people to have his term end and enjoy a new beginning,” he said. “The reckless actions over the past few weeks related to regulations and commutations are extremely disappointing.”
Manning said Obama’s mass release of inmates, after he failed to win broader criminal justice reform to reduce criminal penalties for some drug violations, is “extremely dangerous.” He pointed to a 2014 study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicating that 67.8 percent of 404,638 state prisoners released from prison in 30 states in 2005 picked up a new arrest within three years. Within five years, that figure was 76.6 percent.
The first arrest after release for nearly 15 percent of recidivists was for a violent offense.
Manning said there is no reason to think that the recidivism rate will be better for these prisoners than for the typical ex-con. He predicted some of the ex-prisoners will commit violent crimes, leaving a trail of tears.
“It will be directly this president’s fault,” he said.
Cook, the federal prosecutor, said he also worries that commuting such a large number of sentences “undermines the entire deterrent effect.”
The latest list includes several defendants described as “kingpins” by prosecutors. One man, Houston resident John Timothy Cotton, had been serving a life sentence since 2005. According to the Associated Press, he headed up a multi-state drug ring that shipped $43 million worth of crack cocaine over a decade to Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and Kansas.
Most of the drugs came from Colombia and the Dominican Republic. One shipment, according to the AP, included $500,000 stuffed in a car. Cotton and other members of the operation paid a voodoo priestess thousands of dollars to place hexes on federal agents, according to the story.
In some cases, though, federal judges suggested they would have imposed lighter sentences if they could. U.S. District Judge William Steele in Mobile, Alabama, sentenced Timothy Wayne Seabury to life in 2011 for cocaine and methamphetamine offenses.
The defendant’s background, which included three separate drug possession felonies in state court, triggered a mandatory life sentence.
“The problem here is that Congress has dictated to this court that it has no flexibility,” the judge said at the time. “I wish it was different. I wish there was something I could do for you. But the only sentence I can impose is life.”
Jessica Jackson Sloan, national director of the advocacy group #cut50, praised Obama’s “last act of mercy” but insisted that even more prisoners should be released.
“There are still too many people incarcerated in the federal system who are not a threat to public safety. In fact, they would be assets, mentors, and leaders in their communities if they were given the chance to come home,” she said in a prepared statement.
But Cook said the Obama administration has not been transparent about the criteria it uses to scrutinize clemency applications. He noted that his organization asked for such criteria in December 2015.
“We don’t know how well they’re being vetted,” he said. “We the public haven’t been given the information.”