President Obama announced that today he is commuting the sentences of 95 federal inmates, ramping up his use of the pardon power after years of criticism that he wasn't doing enough.
Most of those whose sentences he commuted were sentenced on nonviolent drug charges. Forty of them had been serving life sentences, and many had been in prison for decades. Almost all will now be released April 16. He also pardoned two other inmates.
Obama told reporters that those who received pardons and clemencies "had served their debt to society," and called his move "another step forward in upholding our fundamental ideals of justice and fairness."
Among the lucky 95 was Ramona Brant, who has served 21 years of a life sentence for a first-time, nonviolent drug charge. Fusion highlighted her story last week. Brant was on medical leave Friday and her lawyer told me that he hadn't been able to deliver the good news yet.
While criminal justice reform advocates applauded Obama's move, many were hoping for more drastic action. Former Attorney General Eric Holder had previously suggested that a total of 10,000 people could get clemency. So far, Obama has commuted the sentences of 184 inmates—more than the last five presidents combined. But about 35,000 inmates have applied for clemency.
"It's a great day for those who won the lottery and one more disappointment for everyone in the pipeline who should be on the list and must suffer an additional holiday" behind bars, Amy Povah, the president of the clemency advocacy group CAN-DO, told me.
Twenty-seven of the latest clemency grants, including Brant, had their petitions approved through Clemency Project 2014, a group of pro bono attorneys that have been reviewing petitions from federal inmates. Any inmate who has served at least 10 years and has no violent record is eligible.
"While it is my hope that President Obama will increase the use of his clemency power going forward, one can only be happy for each and every of today's grantees and their loved ones," Cynthia Roseberry, the effort's project manager, said in a statement.
Many have criticized the project as being bureaucratic and slow. It has sifted through thousands of applications but resulted only in 31 clemency grants, as of today.
Roseberry told me in an interview that the effort had to overcome challenges like dealing with decades-old files that weren't digitized. “We’ve had an uptick in the number of submissions since we’ve been able to do things to streamline our process,” she said.
Obama’s clemency power only extends to federal prisoners, who make up less than 10% of the total number of inmates in the country. Most inmates are in state prisons, and can only get clemency from governors or state boards of pardon. State clemency is rare.
Tony Papa, who received clemency after serving 12 years in New York State on a first-time, nonviolent drug charge, said he hoped other state governors would follow Obama’s example.
“People are falling through the cracks because of archaic drug laws that do not work,” said Papa, who now works for the Drug Policy Alliance.
When his warden told him that New York Governor George Pataki had granted him clemency in 1997, “I cried like a baby, sobs of joy, my knees just buckled,” Papa said. “It was an amazing feeling that after 12 years, I was going to come home.”
This is a developing story.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.