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Is This President Obama’s Prison Reform Moment?

The time may be right for Obama to tackle sentencing reform.
(Photo: Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock)

President Obama has found himself in something of a hot streak. Entering the closing stretch of his presidency, Obama has eked out political victory after next, from announcing a historic shift in American/Cuban relations to securing a bipartisan agreement on the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership, all building toward twin Supreme Court victories last month, which upheld his long-embattled health-care reform law and struck down state bans on same-sex marriage. Leading a South Carolina congregation in a rendition of "Amazing Grace" at the funeral of murdered pastor Clementa Pinckney, Obama seemed to observers passionate, determined, and emboldened by his victories. USA Today called it "perhaps the most momentous week in his tenure." More appropriately, the president seems unleashed.

So what’s next? President Obama may have given us a hint. On Monday, Obama commuted the sentences of 46 drug offenders currently incarcerated in federal prisons as "part of his administration's effort to reform the criminal justice system," the Washington Post reports.

"These men and women were not hardened criminals, but the overall majority of them had been sentenced to more than 20 years," Obama said in a video announcement posted on Monday. "Fourteen of them had been sentenced to life for non-violent drug offenses. Their punishments did not fit the crime, and under today’s laws, they would have already served their time."

The number of offenders incarcerated in federal prisons increased from approximately 24,000 in 1980 to more than 215,000 in 2013.

This is no routine executive action: The commutations mark the most in a single day since President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, according to the Post, and Obama has now commuted the sentences of more prisoners than presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush combined. All were convicted for drug crimes like cocaine trafficking. They also come ahead of Obama’s trip to FCI El Reno in Oklahoma, the first visit to a federal prison by a sitting president in United States history. "The message from Obama to Congress, in coupling a plea for legislation with a unilateral act of clemency, will be clear," explains Andrew Cohen at the Marshall Project of this week's criminal justice circuit: "Pass the reform legislation you say you support so that I don’t have to try to continue to ease federal incarceration by myself."

There’s a pretty strong consensus that America's prison system is a disaster. The number of offenders incarcerated in federal prisons increased from approximately 24,000 in 1980 to more than 215,000 in 2013, according to a February study from Pew Charitable Trusts, and federal spending on prisons exploded from $1 billion in 1980 to nearly $7 billion in 2013. Part of that uptick is due to offenders like those Obama pardoned Monday. After the highly public cocaine overdose of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias and a spiraling national freakout over the emergence of crack cocaine in the 1980s, Congress established the standard of mandatory-minimum sentences for drug offenses in the hastily drafted 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which established the "100-to-one disparity" between the amount of crack versus powder cocaine needed to trigger the same mandatory sentences. In effect, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act filled prisons full of offenders whose punishments don't fit the crime. Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010 to close this disparity, but past offenders continued to languish in jail. And even with far-reaching clemency for non-violent offenders, American prisons would still be over-crowded. It's no wonder, then, that American prisons present substantial health effects that can impede the rehabilitation of a prisoner population.

All signs suggest that President Obama may make a push for some meaningful criminal justice reform before he leaves office, most likely in the form of the Smarter Sentencing Act he's backed in the past, which would reduce mandatory life sentences to 20 years from 40. Prison reform is uniquely suited to Obama’s political moment: Progressives love it as a means to battle entrenched structural racism and inequality (four in five of those imprisoned for crack offenses under mandatory minimums are black); fiscal hawks love it because it tamps down on spiraling prison costs; libertarians love it because it kneecaps one of the most damaging tools of state coercion. Public opinion is certainly on his side: An October 2014 Reason poll found that 77 percent of Americans were in favor of eliminating mandatory minimums. Additionally, a 2014 Pew survey found that 67 percent of Americans say the government should be providing treatment for drug addicts, while 26 percent favor prosecution instead.

With the 2016 presidential field an indelible, toupeed mess and Congress' annual summer vacation fast-approaching, Obama’s presidency is quickly entering its halcyon days. But with health-care reform and same-sex marriage in the bag, dismantling the damaging system of mandatory minimums and reigning in the bloated U.S. federal prison system might finally secure the legacy Obama sought when he first campaigned in 2008.