In 1996, Jesse Webster was sentenced to life in prison. His crime? Intent to sell cocaine and filing false tax returns.
Instead of spending his life behind bars, Webster will be released in September, thanks to President Barack Obama’s grant of clemency. The White House announced today that the president has commuted the sentences of 61 prisoners incarcerated for drug crimes. About a third of them, like Webster, were in prison for life.
“Most of them are low-level drug offenders whose sentences would have been shorter if they were convicted under today’s laws,” Obama wrote on his Facebook page. “I believe America is a nation of second chances, and with hard work, responsibility, and better choices, people can change their lives and contribute to our society.”
In a letter to the prisoners, the president wrote, “The power to grant pardons and commutations … embodies the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance after having made a mistake in their lives that led to a conviction under our laws.”
The Justice Department is searching for prisoners who are serving long sentences for crimes that carried harsher penalties than they do now. The White House claimed that Obama has now freed more prisoners than the previous six administrations combined. And White House Counsel Neil Eggleston said the president would issue more grants of clemency in his time in office.
Even as criminal justice reformers laud Obama’s action, they point out that there are other much-needed reforms.
“We are deeply gratified that the president has used the power of the Oval Office to give relief to people serving unjust sentences, for low-level, nonviolent crimes,” said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, told The New York Times. “Unfortunately, clemency can’t change policy. Congress should be eliminating mandatory minimum sentences so that thousands more don’t serve excessive sentences that don’t make Americans safer.”