The decision is part of a broader bipartisan effort to make the criminal justice system more equitable. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have been working together on legislation, and in 2014 the US Department of Justice widened the path to clemency for federal drug offenders.
For his part, Obama will spend the week focused on plans to overhaul the criminal justice system: On Tuesday, he will lay out ideas toward fairness during a speech to the NAACP, and will become the first sitting president to visit a federal prison Thursday when he goes to Oklahoma’s El Reno Correctional Institution.
Some critics have noted that the commutations “are symbolic and are dwarfed by the scale of the issue,” The Christian Science Monitor’s Sanya Mansoor wrote on Saturday. Even Vanita Gupta, former deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union and now the top civil rights prosecutor for the Justice Department, told the Monitor last year that clemency expansion alone won’t be enough to cure the system’s ills.
But, Ms. Gupta added, “I think [it] marks a turn away from the old business as usual in the federal criminal justice system.... I think the president is feeling empowered to do this in part because there has been tremendous conservative leadership on this in the states for several years now.”