Washington, DC - President Barack Obama has pardoned 78 people and shortened the sentence of 153 others convicted of federal crimes, the greatest number of individual clemencies in a single day by any president, the White House said Monday.
Obama has been granting commutations at rapid-fire pace in his final months in office, but he has focused primarily on shortening sentences of those convicted of drug offenses rather than giving pardons.
A pardon amounts to forgiveness of a crime that removes restrictions on the right to vote, hold state or local office, or sit on a jury. The pardon also lessens the stigma arising from the conviction. The pardons issued Monday were for a wide range of offenses, such as possession of counterfeit currency, felon in possession of a firearm and involuntary manslaughter. One Tennessee man was pardoned after being dismissed from the military in 1990 for conduct unbecoming an officer (shoplifting.)
Neil Eggleston, Obama's White House counsel, said Obama has now pardoned a total of 148 people during his presidency. He has also shortened the sentences of 1,176 people, including 395 serving life sentences.
Eggleston said each clemency recipient's story is unique, but a common thread of rehabilitation underlies all of them. Pardon recipients have shown they have led a productive and law-abiding post-conviction life, including by contributing to the community in a meaningful way, he said.
Commutation recipients have made the most of his or her time in prison by participating in educational courses, vocational training, and drug treatment, he said. Not all of those receiving commutations will be set free right away. Some will see their sentences end in 2017 or 2018 — long after Obama leaves office — and in some cases on the condition they participate in drug treatment programs.
"These are the stories that demonstrate the successes that can be achieved by both individuals and society in a nation of second chances," Eggleston said.
The commutations were announced as Obama vacations in Hawaii during the holidays. Obama leaves office falling short in efforts to overhaul the nation's criminal justice system. Congress could not reach agreement on legislation that would lead to shorter sentences for some.
Pointing to a prison population that has increase from 500,000 in 1980 to about 2.2 million today, the administration had argued that thousands of people were serving sentences disproportionate to their crimes and that the financial toll of incarcerating them increased financial strains for the government.
Eggleston said he expects Obama to issue more commutations and pardons before he leaves office. He called clemency a tool of last resort and said "only Congress can achieve the broader reforms needed to ensure over the long run that our criminal justice system operates more fairly and effectively."
The pace of commutations generated criticism on the campaign trail earlier this year with President-elect Donald Trump warning voters that their safety could be at risk because of Obama's move to set prisoners free ahead of schedule. "Some of these people are bad dudes," Trump said in October after another batch of Obama commutations.
The Drug Policy Alliance, which has supported Obama's efforts, said it was worried going into the next administration.
"We need the president to pick up the pace of commutations before he leaves office," said Michael Collins, a deputy director at the alliance.