From here.President Barack Obama is commuting the prison sentences of 61 people who were serving time for drug offenses, the White House announced Wednesday. More than one-third of the 61 individuals who had their sentences commuted were serving life sentences. . . . Obama has now commuted the sentences of 248 individuals, more men than the past six presidents combined, according to the White House.
President Obama has also issued 70 pardons.
The vast majority of commutations are issued around Thanksgiving and Christmas, although there is another minor peak in commutations around Easter.
A commutation is a reduction of sentence for someone currently in prison. The President's unlimited and purely discretionary power to commutate sentences is a subset of his power to pardon people convicted of federal crimes, something rarely done for someone currently in prison, but far more often done to clear the criminal record of someone who has served their time and been a good citizen who is disqualified from some civil right by virtue of a conviction.
Mass commutations and pardons are also allowed, the most recent of which was a pardon for Vietnam War draft dodgers several decades ago.
The federal prison system, over which President Obama has commutation power, has roughly 200,000 inmates at any given time, and far more individuals over the course of an eight year Presidential term. Drug offenses, immigration offenses, fraud offenses, and ordinary felonies committed on Indian reservations and federal property, make up a disproportionate share of federal inmates.
The pardon power has been used much more sparingly in recent years than historically, in part, because far more judicial opportunities for post-conviction review are available.
Until the 1890s, for example, direct appeals of federal criminal convictions were not available and only habeas corpus review of federal criminal convictions (with much narrower grounds for granting relief) was permitted. The right to a direct appeal of a criminal conviction remains a statutory or state constitutional right, rather than a federal constitutional right, to this day.
It was once fairly common for a President or Governor to pardon someone convicted of a crime due to a doubt regarding guilt or innocence. Now, such pardons are vanishingly rare.
But, commutation of sentences is important, particularly in the federal system, because mandatory minimum sentencing laws frequently require judges to sentence convicted defendants to terms much longer than the judges believe are just.
Furthermore, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a series of cases on the issue, has virtually eliminated any flexibility for state or federal judges to hold that a sentence other than a life in prison without possibility of parole sentence imposed on a juvenile, or a death sentence, violated the 8th Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. For example, it has upheld life in prison sentences for recidivist offenders who are convicted of minor shoplifting offenses. There is somewhat more latitude under the 8th Amendment in cases where the offender has no prior criminal record, but the sentence must still be grossly disproportionate to the crime to qualify for an 8th Amendment reduction.