President Obama’s Commutation Pen Stays Busy

By Christopher Zoukis

Neil Eggleston
Neil Eggleston

Last week, President Obama issued his fourth batch this year of commutation orders for federal prisoners last week, releasing or reducing sentences for another 214 inmates. This booststotal commutations since he took office to 562.

The White House also announced on Aug. 3 that Obama’s commutations now exceed the combined total for his nine most recent Oval Office predecessors (John F. Kennedy through George W. Bush).

A blog entry by White House counsel to the president Neil Eggleston noted the August commutations represented the largest action of its type in a single day since at least the year 1900, and included 67 inmates serving life sentences (bringing that total to 179).

As Eggleston also observed, since the Clemency Initiative grants require individual review by the Department of Justice and the President, they may provide individualized relief or contain personalized conditions. So, some commutation grants will free inmates in the months ahead, while others will not bring release, but instead reduce sentences by years, and others are conditioned on the inmate seeking drug rehab treatment.

Eggleston’s commentary also notes he expects President Obama in his remaining months in office will continue issuing clemency grants “in a historic and inspiring fashion.” Some clemency advocates have urged the president to adopt even broader measures, such as granting blanket rather than individualized relief to categories of inmates, such as those convicted before a change in sentencing law for crack cocaine offenses reduced prison terms for those convicted in 1990 or later, without retroactively reducing sentences of those convicted earlier.

The White House counsel’s blog entry also renewed the administration’s call for Congress to clear a criminal justice reform law for the president to sign, since legislative change is needed to achieve fundamental change in criminal penalties. Even if legislators decide to turn to that topic after the end of their summer recess, Congress’ need to concentrate on finishing work on government funding measures, the short pre-election legislative calendar, and significant disagreements over numerous provisions year are likely to dim hopes for major action on criminal justice reform this year.

Some optimists hope that it might be dealt with during a post-election lame-duck session, but this scenario seems to have at best a remote chance.

Over two years ago, the administration announced a clemency initiative designed to provide relief for federal prisoners serving lengthy sentences for non-violent crimes, particularly those for which sentences were reduced after those prisoners were sentenced. 

The Department of Justice officially launched Clemency Initiative 2014 on April 23 of that year, with the assistance of volunteers from law firms and five non-profit groups, inviting clemency petitions from inmates meeting the program’s exacting eligibility standards: at least 10 years already served, a sentence which subsequent law changes would likely mean significantly shorter time today, good conduct while incarcerated, low-level and non-violent offenses, and no previous serious convictions or ties to gangs or drug cartels.

The Department of Justice has not announced precisely how many clemency petitions it received by the October 19, 2015 deadline for submissions, but by this June, it had taken in at least 34,000, had rejected about 25,000 and was still working on about 10,000.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at and