President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 214 prisoners Wednesday, the most people he has ordered released at one time in his presidency, as the White House accelerates its clemency efforts for nonviolent drug offenders in the twilight of Obama’s term.
Obama has now shortened the sentences of 562 individuals during his presidency, more than the previous nine presidents combined. Wednesday’s commutations are the most in a single act since at least 1900, the White House said. The group includes 67 people serving life sentences.
“That being said, our work is far from finished,” White House counsel Neil Eggleston said in a blog post. “I expect the president will continue to grant clemency in a historic and inspiring fashion.”
The Obama administration began a program to expedite thousands of clemency requests in 2014. The initiative emphasizes aiding nonviolent drug offenders who have served more than a decade in jail with good conduct and who would be eligible for shorter sentences were they convicted today.
The administration is pressing Congress for bipartisan legislation that would overhaul the U.S. criminal justice system by reducing mandatory sentences for nonviolent felons. That legislation has stalled over some lawmakers’ insistence that the bill codify a legal principle called mens rea, which would require prosecutors to show that defendants had willful intent to break the law. Opponents have said corporate executives could exploit those changes to escape punishment for crimes.
Obama renewed his call for the legislation during his speech at the Democratic National Convention last week, saying Americans “need to keep making our streets safer and our criminal justice system fairer.”