WASHINGTON -- Three people sentenced in federal court in Cincinnati were among 61 drug offenders who had their prison sentences shortened Wednesday by President Barack Obama, part of a wider call by his administration for criminal justice reform.
Alvin Cordell was sentenced to life in prison for conspiracy to distribute cocaine and post in 1997; he'll be released from prison March 29, 2017.
In 2002, Isadore Gennings was charged for his part in a ring bringing in cocaine from Chicago. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison for conspiracy to distribute cocaine, interstate travel in aid of racketeering enterprises, and possession with intent to distribute in excess of five kilograms of cocaine. Gennings will get out of prison July 28 and be on supervised release for five years.
Tommy Howard, convicted of using a firearm during a drug trafficking offense, was sentenced in 2004 to 24 years in prison. Instead, he'll be released July 28.
Like Cordell, Gennings and Howard, all 61 inmates are serving time for drug possession, intent to sell or related crimes. Most are nonviolent offenders, although a few, like Howard, were also charged with firearms violations.
Obama, in a letter to the inmates receiving commutations, said the presidential power to grand commutations and pardons "embodies the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance after having made a mistake in their lives that led to a conviction under our laws."
The latest tranche of commutations brings to 248 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.
"Throughout the remainder of his time in office, the president is committed to continuing to issue more grants of clemency as well as to strengthening rehabilitation programs," said Neil Eggleston, the White House counsel, in a blog post.
He added that clemency is a tool of last resort that can help specific people, but doesn't address the broader need for a "more fair and just" system and "fix decades of overly punitive sentencing policies."
Harsh sentences also can tend to disproportionately impact minority communities: Vox.com, citing a 2012 report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, found prison sentences for drug offenses committed by black men were 13.1 percent longer than prison sentences for drug offenses committed by white men between 2007 and 2009.
In a bid to call further attention to the issue, Obama met for lunch Wednesday with people whose sentences were previously commuted to hear about the challenges of re-entering society. One of the former inmates, Kemba Smith, was seven months pregnant when she turned herself in on crack cocaine charges, and she served more than 6 years before former President Bill Clinton granted clemency in 2000. She went on to study social work and become an advocate, the White House said.
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 recently lost steam. As with Obama's other priorities, the din of the chaotic presidential campaign has increasingly made cooperation among Republicans and Democrats in Congress this year a non-starter.
Last month, a group of Senate Republicans declared their opposition to the legislation Obama and some conservatives had been pushing, dealing a major blow to prospects of getting it done this year. A key Senate committee had already approved the bipartisan bill, which would let judges hand out lesser sentences more lenient than the federal mandatory minimums and eliminate mandatory life sentences for drug offenders caught three times. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has said the overhaul is doable but doesn't have to get done in 2016.
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.