Obama commutes 61 prison sentences

Updated 7:15 PM EDT, Wed March 30, 2016
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US President Barack Obama visits the cell where Nelson Mandela, an anti-apartheid activist, was once jailed on Robben Island, on June 30, 2013. Paying homage to the 94-year-old former South-African president, who is critically ill in hospital, Obama stared into the stark cell where Mandela spent two thirds of his 27 years in jail.  AFP PHOTO/JIM  WATSON        (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
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Story highlights

The White House announced the administration is commuting the prison sentences of 61 people Wednesday

President Barack Obama will also meet with incarcerated individuals

(CNN) —  

President Barack Obama commuted the prison sentences of 61 people who were serving time for drug offenses, the White House announced Wednesday, furthering his push to reform what he sees as overzealous sentencing laws.

To highlight his efforts, Obama spent an hour Wednesday afternoon having lunch with former prisoners whose time behind bars had been shortened.

“By exercising these presidential powers, I have the chance to show people what a second chance can look like,” Obama said after his meal.

He was joined by three people whose sentences he had commuted, along with four others whose terms were reduced by Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

In his short remarks, Obama singled out Phillip Emmert, who served fourteen years in federal prison after being handed a 27-year sentence for conspiring to distribute methamphetamine.

“This is an example of what we mean when we talk about second chances,” Obama said.

Emmert said Obama’s presence at lunch was a surprise – one that touched him.

“I told President Obama today that you never want to underestimate the power of one act of kindness,” Emmert said in an interview. “It changes people’s lives. When they see that people really do care about them, care about their future, care that they want to see them as a success, it changes people’s lives, especially people as powerful as President Obama.”

Roughly 6,000 federal inmates to be released

More than one-third of the 61 individuals who had their sentences commuted Wednesday were serving life sentences, according to White House Counsel Neil Eggleston. Obama has now commuted the sentences of 248 individuals, more than the past six presidents combined, according to the White House.

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After his lunch, Obama said listening to former prisoners “reminded me of how out of proportion and counterproductive so much of our sentencing when it comes to our drug laws are, both at the federal level and the state level.”

One of his dining companions, Ramona Brant, was only released from prison last month. In December, Obama commuted Brant’s 1994 life sentence for conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine.

“If you wanted to sentence me because I was in a relationship with someone who dealt drugs, and I knew about it, that I was present – OK, I am guilty of those things,” Brant said in an interview after the meeting. “A life sentence is not warranted for the minor role that I played in this conspiracy.”

“It takes someone with compassion like the President to see the injustice and right the right that committed to so many of us,” she said. “And there are so many more that are in the prison system – we want to reach back and pull them out.”

Brittany K. Byrd, who has represented clients who had their sentences commuted by Obama in the past, said Wednesday’s announcement is a sign Obama “is committed to restoring the sense of fairness at the heart of our justice system.”

“I am hopeful the President will continue to mercifully grant clemency to the hundreds of others who deserve relief, like Corey Jacobs, who is serving his 16th year of a life sentence as a first-time non-violent drug offender,” Byrd said in a statement. “Life in federal prison is a fundamental death sentence. Requiring hundreds of people like Corey Jacobs to die in prison for non-violent drug offenses is an utter waste of human life and taxpayer dollars.”

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She continued, “Progress was made today, but there is definitely a lot more work to do.”

On Tuesday, Obama spoke at the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta, moderated by CNN’s Sanjay Gupta.

Obama said he wasn’t sure what it was that tipped his life away from addiction. “I wasn’t always as responsible as I am today. In many ways I was lucky, because for whatever reason addiction didn’t get it’s claws on me … except cigarettes,” he said.

“Regardless how individuals get into these situations, we don’t know everything. There may be genetic components. Addictions may be different for different people,” he said.

“What we do know is there are steps that can be taken to get through addiction and get to the other side, and that is under-resourced.”