Massachusetts residents may be surprised to learn that President Barack Obama has commuted the sentences of more federal prisoners than the last nine chief executives combined. The White House announced on Nov. 22 that Obama had commuted the sentences of a further 79 nonviolent drug offenders, which brings his total commutations since taking office to more than 1,000.
Political and legal observers say that the president may be stepping up his efforts in this area due to the results of the November general election. President-elect Donald Trump vowed to be a strong advocate for law and order during a contentious campaign, and few observers expect him to continue Obama’s push to mitigate the effects of what many experts see as unnecessarily harsh and discriminatory mandatory minimum sentencing laws. However, not all of those calling for criminal justice reform are happy with the way that Obama has handled the issue.
While Obama has set a new bar for commutations, he has actually pardoned fewer federal prisoners than any chief executive since John Adams left office more than two centuries ago. Obama has also denied more petitions for pardon than four of the last five occupants of the Oval Office. During his two terms in office, Obama has denied 1,629 petitions for pardon while granting only 70.
Experienced criminal defense attorneys may seek to reduce drug charges during plea negotiations to avoid mandatory sentencing laws, but they could also argue vigorously on behalf of their clients when the evidence against them is less than compelling. Defense attorneys may challenge the reliability of uncorroborated testimony provided by informants or accomplices, and they could seek to have drugs or other evidence seized by police ruled inadmissible if rights guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment were not properly respected.