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Obama just shortened the sentences of 61 federal prisoners. It's not as impressive as it looks.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

On Wednesday, President Obama announced plans to reduce the sentences of 61 federal prisoners — shortening their prison terms, assigned under now-obsolete federal laws and policies, to what they'd serve if they were sentenced today.

Obama has now commuted 248 prison sentences. The White House points out that this is more commutations than the past six presidents combined. (Most previous presidents, unlike Obama, have focused on pardoning former prisoners rather than shortening the sentences of current ones.)

But the White House is still falling far short of the expectations it set for itself two years ago, when it encouraged thousands of prisoners to apply for shorter sentences. Then–Attorney General Eric Holder even went so far as to speculate that 10,000 prisoners might get their sentences reduced by the end of the Obama administration.

In that context, the 61 new commutations — and even the 248 total commutations — look different: a very small, incremental change that may signal the White House will do more in future but almost certainly won't help it live up to its own expectations.

How Obama set such high expectations for himself on prisoner clemency

In the spring of 2014, the Obama administration announced that the Office of the Pardon Attorney would make a particular effort to help people who were convicted of drug crimes during the height of the tough-on-crime era, and who, thanks to various changes to federal law and policy, would get shorter sentences if they'd committed their crimes today.

It encouraged prisoners whose drug sentences would be shorter under current law (and who met other criteria) to apply for commutations. It encouraged lawyers to apply for a massive pro bono project, called the Clemency Project 2014, to help them with their applications.

The administration got 10,000 applications, thanks in part to the lawyers' network (25 of the 61 newest commutations were prisoners represented by the pro bono lawyers). The hang-up has been on the administration's end.

It's running out of time: Obama will leave office in 10 months, and the next president, regardless of party, is under no obligation to approve any of the applications for clemency that his or her predecessor solicited.

The pardon attorney that Obama had installed to oversee the program, Deborah Leff, gave up hope that the White House would improve: She resigned in January, with an unusually blunt letter that warned, "The requests of thousands of petitioners seeking justice will lie unheard."

Maybe the 61 new commutations are a sign that Leff got her message across by resigning and the White House is picking up the pace. Indeed, some of the prisoners who are getting their sentences reduced this week are people who don't easily fit into the politically safe box of the "nonviolent first-time offender" — some were charged with possession of a firearm in the commission of their crimes, and a couple are serving time for their second offense.

But if Obama is going to meet the goalposts his administration set, events like this are going to have to get common enough to stop being newsworthy.

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