President Barack Obama pardoned 78 people and also granted commutations to 153 nonviolent drug offenders who were sentenced under harsh and outdated laws and would have received lighter sentences if convicted today.
In total, Obama has pardoned 148 people and granted 1,176 commutations for federal inmates under the clemency initiative that he and former Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. launched two years ago. Obama plans to issue more commutations before he leaves office, White House Counsel Neil Eggleston said.
One of the men who received clemency is Corey Jacobs, 47, a Bronx native who was serving a life sentence for his first felony conviction on a drug charge.
"I am elated at the news about my client, Corey Jacobs, receiving clemency from President Obama today," Jacobs's attorney, Brittany Byrd, said Monday. "Corey has more than paid his debt to society by serving over 17 years of a life-without-parole sentence as a nonviolent drug offender. Life in prison without the possibility of parole screams that a person is beyond hope, beyond redemption. And in Corey's case, it is a punishment that absolutely did not fit the crime. The president's mercy and belief in redemption literally saved Corey's life."
Judge Henry Coke Morgan Jr. wrote a letter supporting Jacobs' petition for clemency and said that he would not have imposed a life sentence had he not been required by law to do so.
"Sadly, Mr. Jacobs is no anomaly," Holder wrote last summer in an opinion piece in the New York Times. "There are thousands like him serving sentences in our federal and state systems that are disproportionate to their crimes. The financial cost of our current incarceration policy is straining government budgets; the human and community costs are incalculable."
One of those inmates still waiting for clemency is 65-year-old Bruce Harrison, a decorated Vietnam War veteran suffering from health problems who has served 23 years of a 50-year sentence for his role in transporting drugs in a government sting operation.
After Harrison and others were sentenced, several jurors said they were dismayed to learn how long those convicted were to spend behind bars.
"If I would have been given the right to not only judge the facts in this case, but also the law and the actions taken by the government, the prosecutor, local and federal law enforcement officers connected in this case would be in jail and not the defendants," juror Patrick McNeil wrote afterward.
Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said that the Justice Department will review all clemency petitions submitted by August and send recommendations to Obama. "Our work is ongoing and we look forward to additional announcements from the president before the end of his term," Yates said.
Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, praised Obama's additional clemencies, but said that "commuting sentences isn't going to dig us out of the 30-year problem of over-sentencing people in the first place."
"That requires congressional action. and who knows what will happen in the new Congress," Stewart said.