On Tuesday, 22 people serving sentences of decades or life for nonviolent drug crimes in federal prisons across the country received a personal letter from President Obama, commuting their sentences and ordering their release in late July.
Each had applied to Mr. Obama for clemency — a power the Constitution unreservedly grants the president as a way to correct injustices or offer forgiveness, but which has fallen into near-total disuse in recent decades. Before Tuesday, Mr. Obama ranked as the least merciful president in modern history.
Among the inmates are people like Francis Darrell Hayden, a Kentucky man who was sentenced to life for growing marijuana, and Rudolph Norris, serving 30 years for selling cocaine. In his letter, Mr. Obama warned the prisoners that after their release they would face the doubts of those who do not believe people with criminal records can change. “But remember that you have the capacity to make good choices,” he wrote. “I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong.”
It was a rare moment, and it underscored the critical role executive clemency can play in a justice system that far too often imposes punishments out of any reasonable proportion to the crime.
The commutations are part of a broader effort the Justice Department undertook last year to identify and encourage low-level, nonviolent federal inmates to apply for clemency if they meet certain criteria, such as having no “significant criminal history,” exhibiting good behavior in prison, and serving a sentence of longer than 10 years that would be shorter today because of changed laws.
To date, more than 8,000 applications have poured in to the pardon office, and more than 30,000 inquiries have been received by a coalition of volunteer defense lawyers assisting the administration.
There are clearly far more than 22 people deserving of a reduced sentence. For example, thousands of inmates are serving unjustly long sentences under an absurdly harsh law that treated one gram of crack cocaine the same as 100 grams of powder cocaine for sentencing purposes. The law was changed in 2010 to reduce that ratio by more than four-fifths, but it still applies only to future prosecutions. Mr. Obama could wait forever for Congress to make the law retroactive, or he could use his clemency power to tackle an obvious unfairness now.
Tuesday’s commutations also highlighted the damage caused by federal prosecutors who overcharge defendants who refuse to plead guilty — a common practice that effectively punishes people for exercising their constitutional right to a trial. Many of the sentences Mr. Obama commuted were the result of such overcharging.
Commuting 22 sentences was the right thing to do. As Congress dithers on sentencing reform, Mr. Obama should do more to show mercy to thousands of inmates who could be released without any threat to public safety.