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After years of promises, Obama might finally put a dent in the federal prison population

But it would be a small dent — and it’s going to require a lot of action right up to the minute he leaves office.

A row of pens for Obama to use in signing an education bill.
He will need a lot of these!
Chip Somodevilla/Getty

President Barack Obama shortened the sentences of 214 federal prisoners on Monday — the biggest mass grant of presidential commutations in history.

The prisoners, most of whom are serving time for drug offenses, won’t be released immediately. Many of them are set for release in December. Others will get their release dates moved up but won’t leave prison until after Obama has left office.

It’s the latest and biggest move in Obama’s ongoing effort to reduce the sentences of people incarcerated during the “tough on crime” era of the 1990s and 2000s — many of whom would be serving shorter terms if they had been convicted today.

It’s also the best sign yet that, after years of White House stinginess and intra-bureaucratic struggle, Obama might finally keep his promise to use his sweeping pardon power for significant change.

Obama made big promises for prisoner clemency — but struggled to keep them

With the latest round of commutations, President Obama has pulled ahead of his predecessors Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in using executive authority to pardon former prisoners and shorten (or commute) the sentences of current ones.

Clinton and Bush were both relatively stingy on clemency compared to their predecessors. In the 1940s, presidents routinely pardoned hundreds of ex-offenders a year, at a time when many fewer Americans were in prison to begin with. But Obama inherited a Bush-era pardon office that was so opposed to granting clemency that the pardon attorney actually lied to the president about a high-profile petition.

In 2014, Obama and the Department of Justice made it clear that they were turning over a new leaf and wanted to use the pardon office as a tool for criminal justice reform. Then-Attorney General Eric Holder predicted that the administration might shorten as many as 10,000 prison sentences before Obama left office. The White House encouraged current prisoners whose drug sentences would’ve been shorter if they’d been convicted under current law (and who met other criteria) to apply for commutations.

The problem was that the government wasn’t ready to handle the resulting flood of applications.

In the first two years of the initiative, the administration received thousands of petitions for commutations but granted fewer than 200. The pardon attorney whom Obama had installed to oversee the program, Deborah Leff, resigned this past January — having given up hope that the White House would improve.

“I am unable to carry out my job effectively, despite my intense efforts to do so,” she warned in an unusually blunt resignation letter. “The requests of thousands of petitioners seeking justice will lie unheard. This is inconsistent with the mission and values to which I have dedicated my life, and inconsistent with what I believe the Department should represent."

Now it looks like Leff’s resignation has shamed the administration into speeding up the process. Since her resignation letter became public in March, the White House has commuted the sentences of 375 prisoners. That includes the 214 from the latest round — more commutations in a single day than have been issued, total, by any president since Lyndon B. Johnson (though, in fairness, most past presidents focused on pardoning ex-prisoners rather than commutations).

This will be an issue to watch until the minute Obama leaves office

If the Obama administration has finally thrown off the bureaucratic shackles that weighed down the president’s clemency initiative, that’s great news for the prisoners who could benefit. But there is still a lot more to be done.

There are almost 12,000 pending applications for commutation. Many of prisoners applied because of the administration’s announcement in 2014. And that’s only a fraction of the prisoners interested in applying — the pro-bono network Clemency Project 2014 has screened 32,000 prisoners so far.

Obama isn’t obligated to get through all of the applications — after all, he inherited nearly a thousand petitions from George W. Bush. But even making a substantial dent in the pile will require a much, much faster pace. And in a year when Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe has promised to get around a Virginia state Supreme Court decision by personally signing thousands of pardons to allow ex-prisoners to vote, it’s hard for the White House to argue that it can’t afford to go any faster.

The political pressure on Obama is also likely to increase. Presidents usually step up the pace of pardons and commutations in their final months in office, as the chart above shows. The Obama administration is promising to do “much more.” And it’s likely that they’ll be held to that. After several years, it’s finally possible that Obama could leave office having used his pardon power for more than just symbolism — but we won’t know until the stroke of midnight on the night he leaves.

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