Florida readers may be interested to learn that, on Dec. 19, President Barack Obama commuted sentences for eight people who had been serving what were deemed excessively harsh drug sentences. In addition, Obama pardoned 13 other individuals for other crimes. Sources say this is the president’s most notable use of freeing power since he was elected.
In 2010, Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act that reduces penalties for crack cocaine offenses; however, the act affects only new cases. The sentences that he commuted were for inmates who had served at least 15 years in prison, most of whom had received their sentences under mandatory minimums that forced judges to issue long sentences even for first-time offenders.
Some of the harsher punishment requirements were imposed in 1986 at a time when crack cocaine was believed to be a violence-inducing drug, and its use had reached epidemic proportions. The sentencing guidelines resulted in long prison terms for tens of thousands of black people who had crack cocaine convictions. At the same time, those convicted for powder cocaine, more often white people, were given much more lenient sentences.
Reports indicate that the process of commuting sentences is too time-intensive to be used as a large-scale solution for thousands of inmates who have been affected by the mandatory minimum laws. Instead, the Obama administration is calling on Congress to make the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive in 2014. The commuted sentences and the Fair Sentencing Act are part of a larger policy shift regarding federal sentencing policies that have filled the country’s prisons with low-level drug offenders serving long sentences.
The Fair Sentencing Act may be good news for defendants facing drug charges in Florida. A criminal defense attorney might be able to explain changes to sentencing laws and explore possible defense options to mitigate penalties for a drug charge.
Source: South Florida times, “Obama Commutes Sentences for 8 Drug Convictions“, Nedra Pickler, December 24, 2013
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