Pubdate: Sat, 19 Dec 2015
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2015 The New York Times Company
Authors: Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Peter Baker


WASHINGTON - President Obama ended a tumultuous year in the nation's 
capital by commuting the sentences of 95 federal prisoners and 
granting two pardons on Friday, building on his push to reorient the 
nation's criminal justice system with a holiday season stroke of his pen.

The set of commutations was the largest of Mr. Obama's presidency, 
and it more than doubled the number he has granted since taking 
office. Most of those who will be freed are nonviolent drug offenders 
given long sentences during an earlier crackdown on crime. Forty of 
them will be spared life terms.

The move came as the president is pressing for an overhaul of 
criminal justice laws to reverse decades of steep penalties that have 
packed the nation's prisons and jails, disproportionately affecting 
African-American and Hispanic men. The vast majority of Friday's 
commutations were given to criminals who have been imprisoned for 
more than a decade, behaved well in prison and would have been 
sentenced to fewer years under current rules.

At an end-of-the-year news conference on Friday before leaving town 
for a two-week break in Hawaii, Mr. Obama called the commutations 
"another step forward in upholding our ideals of justice and 
fairness." He said he hoped to use his final year in office to pass 
bipartisan legislation revamping the federal criminal justice system.

"If we can show at the federal level that we can be smart on crime, 
more cost effective, more just, more proportionate, then we can set a 
trend for other states to follow as well," Mr. Obama said. "And 
that's our hope."

"This is not going to be something that's reversed overnight," he 
added. "It took 20 years for us to get to the point where we are now. 
And only 20 years, probably, before we reverse some of these major trends."

Mr. Obama used the news conference to wrap up a year in which he 
secured landmark but contentious international agreements on trade, 
climate change and Iran's nuclear program, while striking deals with 
Republicans in Congress to put aside spending caps, extend tax 
breaks, build and repair highways and bridges, impose new limits on 
surveillance programs and rewrite the No Child Left Behind education law.

But he ended the year struggling to reassure a jittery nation that, 
according to polls, has grown increasingly dissatisfied with his 
handling of the Islamic State and the threat of terrorism. Weeks 
after the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., Mr. Obama 
headed off for Hawaii with just 44 percent of Americans approving of 
his job performance in the latest survey by The New York Times and CBS News.

He said some terrorist plots were hard to detect and prevent, 
pointing to the California attackers, who were evidently inspired by 
the Islamic State but not acting under direct instruction. "Here, 
essentially, you have ISIL trying to encourage or induce somebody who 
may be prey to this kind of propaganda," he said, using an acronym 
for the Islamic State. "And it becomes more difficult to see."

He said that visitors and immigrants seeking visas already faced 
scrutiny of their publicly available social media posts, such as 
those made on Facebook, but that examining private messages was 
harder and might not be appropriate. "Keep in mind it was only a 
couple of years ago we were having a major debate about whether 
government was becoming too much like Big Brother," he said.

Mr. Obama planned to stop in California on the way to Hawaii to meet 
with families of some of the 14 people who were killed in the San 
Bernardino attack.

At the news conference, Mr. Obama again defended his strategy in 
Syria despite bipartisan criticism, and he rejected the contention 
that the United States should support authoritarian leaders in places 
like Libya and Egypt.

Still, he acknowledged mistakes by the international coalition that 
helped topple Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi "for not moving swiftly enough 
and underestimating the need to rebuild government there quickly."

"As a consequence," he added, "you now have a very bad situation."

He repeated his determination to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, 
Cuba, promising to make another effort to persuade Congress. But if 
lawmakers continue to refuse, he did not rule out taking executive 
action, despite recent comments by his attorney general, Loretta E. 
Lynch, that the law does not allow him to bring detainees to the 
United States on his own.

"We will wait until Congress has definitively said no before we say 
anything definitive about my executive authority here," he said.

The commutations granted on Friday brought Mr. Obama's total to 184, 
exceeding all those awarded by the last six presidents combined. But 
he has been stingier with full pardons, and his latest action was 
still minuscule in the context of the tens of thousands of federal 
inmates who have applied for clemency as his administration has 
aggressively sought to correct the excesses of the past. White House 
officials argued that Mr. Obama's use of clemency has put human faces 
on the issue.

"The theory is not that this by itself is going to make a dent in the 
prison population - this is part of an overall approach," W. Neil 
Eggleston, the White House counsel, said in an interview. "He thinks 
it fits into the broader effort of criminal justice reform. What it 
does show is, on a very individual basis, the way some sentences in 
the past have been excessive."

This is one area where the president finds himself in agreement with 
Republicans who believe that the criminal justice system has grown 
too costly and houses too many people for too long. On a bipartisan 
vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee in October advanced legislation 
to reduce mandatory sentences for nonviolent crimes, target select 
offenders for early release and do more to help them transition back 
to society. The House is working on its own version.

In issuing the commutations, Mr. Obama sent letters to each of the 
prisoners, most of whom will be released in April, signing them one 
by one in the Oval Office on Thursday. "I am granting your 
application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your 
life around," he wrote. "Now it is up to you to make the most of this 

Michael D. Shear and Gardiner Harris contributed reporting.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom