Pubdate: Fri, 03 Jun 2016
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2016 The Washington Post Company
Author: Josh Lederman, AP


WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama shortened the sentences Friday of
42 people serving time for drug-related offenses, continuing a push
for clemency that has ramped up in the final year of his

Roughly half of the 42 receiving commutations Friday were serving life
sentences. Most are nonviolent offenders, although a few were also
charged with firearms violations. The White House said many of them
would have already finished their sentences if they had been sentenced
under current, less onerous sentencing guidelines.

The latest group of commutations brings to 348 the total number of
inmates whose sentences Obama has commuted - more than the past six
presidents combined, the White House said. The pace of commutations
and the rarer use of pardons are expected to increase as the end of
Obama's presidency nears.

"He remains committed to using his clemency power throughout the
remainder of the administration to give more deserving individuals
that same second chance," White House counsel Neil Eggleston wrote in
a blog post.

Eggleston added that the offenders receiving commutations had "more
than repaid their debt to society and earned this second chance."

One of the offenders, Douglas Ray Dunkins Jr. of Fort Worth, Texas,
had been held up by civil liberties groups as one of the most
egregious examples of over-sentencing. Dunkins had only a minor
shoplifting conviction on his prior record in 1993 when, at age 26, he
was sentenced to life imprisonment for conspiracy to possess and
distribute crack cocaine, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a
report. No drugs were found, but prosecutors used testimony from
co-conspirators who testified in exchange for lighter sentences, the
ACLU said.

The ACLU said Dunkins had worked for nearly a decade as a paralegal
helping other inmates with legal work and wanted to mentor youth if he
ever got out. Dunkins is slated to be released in October.

"The day-to-day of prison is taking an even greater toll on me. ... I
wake up every day and pray in a cell that's white and grey with little
room to move around in between me and my cellmate," Dunkins wrote in
an opinion piece last year in The Guardian. "Clemency is something
that I long for - not just for me, but for a lot of inmates who have
served well over 20-plus years for crimes involving crack cocaine."

Though there's wide bipartisan support for a criminal justice
overhaul, what had looked like a promising legislative opportunity in
Obama's final year has mostly lost steam. As with Obama's other
priorities, the chaotic presidential campaign has increasingly made
cooperation among Republicans and Democrats in Congress difficult to
achieve this year.

Obama has long called for getting rid of strict sentences for drug
offenses, arguing they lead to excessive punishment and sky-high
incarceration rates. With Obama's support, the Justice Department in
recent years has directed prosecutors to rein in the use of harsh
mandatory minimums.

The Obama administration has also expanded criteria for inmates
applying for clemency, targeting nonviolent offenders who have behaved
well in prison and would have received shorter sentences if convicted
of the same crime a few years later. Civil liberties groups hailed
that move but have since raised concerns that too few are actually
receiving clemency under the policy.
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