Obama commutes eight drug prison terms

The BBC recently visited Wisconsin to investigate why the state sends the most black men to prison

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President Barack Obama has commuted the sentences of eight Americans who would have had shorter prison terms under current drug sentencing laws.

Each of the six men and two women had served more than 15 years in prison for charges related to crack cocaine.

A 2010 law reduced the disparity in sentencing between crack and powdered cocaine offences.

And in August, the administration dropped mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders.

Critics say that heavy drug sentences have hit minorities hardest.

'Too late'

In a statement, Mr Obama said the 2010 law, the Fair Sentencing Act, had begun "to right a decades-old injustice, but for thousands of inmates, it came too late".

President Barack Obama speaks to the media on 18 December 2013 President Barack Obama has previously commuted the sentence of only one person

"Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognised as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year."

Some 47% of US prison inmates have been incarcerated for drug offences, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Many of those with newly commuted sentences were young when they received lengthy prison terms. Six of those on the commutation list had been sentenced to life in prison.

Most will be released in April. One man will go free immediately and another will be released in 2018.

Among those ending their prison terms:

Before this, Mr Obama had commuted only one sentence in the five years of his presidency, also involving another drug case, and had pardoned 39 people.

US prisons in numbers

  • Black and Hispanic people are over-represented in the prison system, 37% and 34% respectively
  • US prisons are operating at nearly 40% above capacity
  • Some 219,000 federal inmates are behind bars
  • The cost of incarceration in the US was $80bn (£50bn) in 2010

Source: Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Prisons

On Thursday, the president also pardoned 13 others for various crimes. All had already served their full prison terms.

A pardon forgives a crime and wipes out the conviction, while a commutation leaves the conviction but ends the punishment.

In August, US Attorney General Eric Holder announced a major shift in federal sentencing policies, targeting long mandatory terms that he said have flooded the nation's prisons with low-level drug offenders and diverted crime-fighting dollars that could be far better spent.

And a bill in Congress would apply the Fair Sentencing Act to some drug offenders already in prison, allowing potential clemency to a group of people estimated to be in the thousands by advocacy groups.

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