This week, President Obama issued sentence commutations to 61 drug offenders all over the country—including 11 in Florida. To many analysts, the move is yet another sign of the shifting national perspective on how our criminal justice system should police and prosecute drug-related crimes.
As the Tampa Bay Times reports, the latest commutations mark a new milestone for the Obama administration, bringing the total issued during this presidency to 248, which is more than the last six presidents combined. In the letters issued to the each of the inmates, President Obama said that his executive power to shorten and pardon the sentences of the convicted "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."
Of the local recipients of the commutation is Anthony Lee Lewis of Coleman medium-security prison in Sumter County. More than two decades ago, Lewis was convicted of numerous drug charges and sentenced to life in prison. After receiving his letter from the president, he will now be released March 30, 2017, according to his family. "Although not always right, his actions and motives before and during his imprisonment have always been for the betterment and well-being of his family," Lewis' daughter told the Times. Lewis had completed his petition for clemency without the assistance of a lawyer.
Rethinking the "War on Drugs"
To many, the commuting of these 61 sentences is just the latest sign that the national perspective on drug crimes is shifting. During the 1980s and 1990s, the explosion of crack cocaine use spurred the "War of Drugs" and the state and federal adoption of particularly harsh drug sentencing policies. Stories like Anthony Lee Lewis' are common all over the country: individuals convicted of non-violent drug crimes—sometimes even just possession—and sentenced to life-altering prison terms.
As the Miami Herald reports, there is bipartisan support for criminal justice reform in Washington, but efforts to change the laws has been delayed by skeptics in Congress. As White House Counsel Neil Eggleston wrote in a recent official blog post, it will take more than presidential pardons and commutations to "fix decades of overly punitive sentencing policies."
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