Barack Obama
Credit: Pete Souza/Flickr

Yesterday President Obama commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning, the former army intelligence analyst convicted in 2013 for disclosing military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks. She is scheduled to be released in May after serving almost 8 years of her 35-year sentence. That is the story that garnered all the headlines. But there were other significant stories included in this announcement. For example, the sentence of Oscar López Rivera was commuted as well.

López Rivera…has been incarcerated for 35 years for his role in fighting for Puerto Rico’s independence.

The 74-year-old, who has spent more than half of his life behind bars, was convicted of “seditious conspiracy” for plotting against the US. The US government had also classified him as a terrorist…

Many prominent figures have aggressively lobbied for López Rivera’s pardon, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu; the governor of Puerto Rico, Alejandro García Padilla; the Hispanic caucus of the US Congress; former US president Jimmy Carter; former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders; and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the smash Broadway musical Hamilton…

US congressman Luis Gutiérrez celebrated Obama’s decision on Tuesday, saying in a statement, “I am overjoyed and overwhelmed with emotion. Oscar is a friend, a mentor, and family to me … The long fight against colonialism in the Caribbean has had many chapters and we have all put violence behind us. Releasing Oscar Lopez Rivera back to his homeland and his people is a step towards peace and reconciliation and is being celebrated by Puerto Ricans of all political stripes, classes, colors and geographies.”

Beyond these two, the President commuted the sentences of 207 other individuals and granted 64 pardons. That brings the total number of commuted sentences under this administration to 1,385 (including 504 life sentences) – more than any other president in our history. In addition, President Obama has now granted a total of 212 pardons. According to Justin Sink and Shannon Pettypiece, he’s not done yet.

The president will announce another series of clemency decisions on Thursday, his final full day in office, an administration official said.

The reason this is important (even though most of these recipients will not garner headlines) is because back in April 2014, President Obama announced a Clemency Initiative. The goal was not only to commute the sentences of drug offenders who had been subjected to previous mandatory minimum sentences that have since been reduced, but to reform the Pardon Attorney’s Office.

The president complained that the pardon attorney’s office favored petitions from wealthy and connected people, who had good lawyers and knew how to game the system. The typical felon recommended for clemency by the pardon attorney was a hunter who wanted a pardon so that he could apply for a hunting license.

Here is how then-Attorney General Eric Holder described the initiative:

Holder told The Huffington Post that it was important for DOJ to “find people who are not traditionally thought of as good candidates” for clemency and “change the focus” of the Office of the Pardon Attorney.

“We have to have a process that I think works better, we need to come up with ways in which we identify people who are worthy of clemency, commutations, and not in the way I think we have traditionally done,” Holder said.

This reform effort ran into some challenges initially that seem to be mostly related to personnel and the fact that they initially received over 25,000 petitions. But those have been addressed since Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates was put in charge of the process and now, the Justice Department reports that they have reviewed all of the remaining 16,000 petitions.

These efforts have been aided by the fact that the U.S. Sentencing Commission decided to apply the Fair Sentencing Act (which reduced the disparities in federal mandatory minimum sentences for powder and crack cocaine) retroactively – affecting approximately 50,000 federal drug offenders. Finally, in 2013 AG Holder implemented a prison reform package that averted the imposition of severe mandatory sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with no ties to gangs or large-scale drug organizations.

Taken together, these initiatives provide the context for a recent report from Pew Research.

President Barack Obama is on pace to leave the White House with a smaller federal prison population than when he took office – a distinction no president since Jimmy Carter has had, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The number of sentenced prisoners in federal custody fell 5% (or 7,981 inmates) between the end of 2009, Obama’s first year in office, and 2015, the most recent year for which BJS has final, end-of-year statistics. Preliminary figures for 2016 show the decline continued during Obama’s last full year in office and that the overall reduction during his tenure will likely exceed 5%.

By contrast, the federal prison population increased significantly under every other president since 1981.

As the White House is always quick to point out, this is not a comprehensive remedy for the problem of mass incarceration in this country. That would require Congress to pass a criminal justice reform package and, even more importantly, efforts at the state and local level. And while it’s clear that the incoming administration is unlikely to continue these efforts, this is an important part of President Barack Obama’s legacy.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.