On December 18, President Obama commuted the sentences of 95 individuals and granted pardons to two, marking the highest number of commutations he has granted at one time and more than doubling his total since taking office. Obama has now granted 184 commutations, which is more than the last five presidents combined.
“I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around. Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity. It will not be easy, and you will confront many who doubt people with criminal records can change. Perhaps even you are unsure of how you will adjust to your new circumstances,” Obama said in a letter to each of the people whose sentence he commuted. “I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong, and change your life for the better.”
In July, Obama granted 46 commutations to non-violent drug offenders, which Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference, at the time said “sends an unmistakable message to the nation that we desperately need reforms to our inhumane, discriminatory, and costly criminal justice system.”
A day after granting those commutations in July, Obama supported one of those desperately needed reforms when he endorsed ‘ban the box’ policies during a speech at the NAACP convention. It was also the week he became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison.
Obama’s leadership in commuting the overly harsh and outdated sentences of these individuals is important, but senseless obstacles to re-entry remain. As Henderson said, these individuals “face barriers to securing housing, financial aid for college, and employment, which will make every day harder than it was before they were incarcerated. These barriers come at a huge cost to our nation, which permanently forces these individuals to the margins of society.”
In November, during an event in Newark, N.J., Obama announced a series of measures designed to help the re-entry process for formerly incarcerated people, including one that will open up federal employment opportunities. Obama directed the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to explore modifying its rules to delay criminal history inquiries until later in the hiring process, and he also called on Congress to pass the Fair Chance Act – a bipartisan bill that passed unanimously out of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in October.
“We agree with the President that Congress must pass bipartisan legislation that would ban the box for federal hiring and contractors,” Henderson said in response to Obama’s announcement in Newark. “Absent that, the President must issue a strong, comprehensive executive order that will ban the box and give millions of Americans a fair chance at employment with the federal government.”
Since his OPM directive, Obama has not issued any ban the box orders.