President Barack Obama has commuted the sentences of eight federal inmates who were convicted of crack cocaine crimes.
The president commuted the prisoners' sentences after deciding that their crack cocaine offenses didn't warrant such lengthy prison sentences, The New York Times reports.
It should be noted, however, that commuting a sentence is not exactly the same as receiving a presidential pardon.
How Do Presidents Commute Prison Sentences?
Article II of the U.S. Constitution grants the president the power to pardon a person who's committed a federal crime, or to commute or shorten a federal prison sentence.
In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 which reduced the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine prison sentences. Based on the rationale behind the Fair Sentencing Act, President Obama believes that if the inmates were to be sentenced today, their sentences would be much shorter, Reuters reports. In other words, under today's laws, they've already paid their debt to society.
According to the Times, this is the first time a law is being retroactively applied to a group of criminals who probably would've received shorter prison sentences if they were to be sentenced under current laws.
Commuting a Sentence v. Presidential Pardons
There are, however, some differences between a commutation of a sentence and a pardon.
A commutation of a sentence reduces the length of the prison sentence. The president can either eliminate the entire sentence or shorten it. However, a commutation doesn't reverse the conviction or remove the civil disabilities that apply to criminal convictions, like a prohibition on the right to vote or to hold elected office. Commutations by the president are only available to inmates who aren't challenging their convictions in court.
On the other hand, a pardon is a presidential forgiveness that's granted after the person has accepted responsibility for his crime and has exhibited good behavior for a significant period of time after his conviction or after his sentence has ended. Unlike commutations, pardons remove civil disabilities and allow the person to be a regular member of the community.
Highlighting the difference, President Obama also "pardoned 13 people who completed their sentences long ago," mainly for minor offenses, the Times reports.
- Commutation Instructions (The U.S. Department of Justice)
- Obama Issues Year-End Commutations For Drug Crimes (NPR)
- Drug Possession Penalties and Sentencing (FindLaw)
- Pardons Aren't Just for Turkeys (FindLaw's Blotter)