Obama said those whose sentences he commuted Thursday have served at least 15 years in prison, many under mandatory minimums that required judges to impose long sentences even if they didn't think the time fit the crime.
"If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society,'' Obama said in a written statement. "Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year.''
Obama ordered that most of the prisoners end their sentences on April 17.
That includes 39-year-old Reynolds A. Wintersmith Jr. of Rockford, Ill., who was a teenager when he was sentenced in 1994 to life in prison for selling crack.
His attorney, MiAngel Cody, said in a telephone interview that the judge told Wintersmith that giving such a sentence for a first-time offender gave him pause, but he had no choice under the law. Cody notified Wintersmith of the commutation in a phone call Thursday and said his elated client responded, "I intend to make President Obama proud.''
In the previous five years of his presidency, Obama had only commuted one drug sentence and pardoned 39 people. A pardon forgives a crime without erasing the conviction, typically after the sentence has been served. A commutation leaves the conviction and ends the punishment.
Groups that advocate for prisoners have criticized Obama for being stingy with his power, George W. Bush granted 189 petitions for pardon and 11 for commutations, while Bill Clinton granted 396 for pardon and 61 for commutations.
White House officials say Obama had only approved a single commutation petition among more than 8,000 received because it's the only one that had been given a positive recommendation by the Justice Department.
According to one senior Obama aide, the president expressed frustration that he wasn't receiving more positive recommendations.
So early this year White House counselor Kathryn Ruemmler approached Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who overseas the Office of the Pardon Attorney, and asked them to take a hard look at the clemency petitions filed by convicts for any that might have merit, given the change in the drug sentencing law.
The Justice Department responded this fall by presenting the White House with the 21 recommendations for clemency. Ruemmler oversaw an independent analysis and turned over detailed memos on the cases to the president, who signed off on them all, according to White House officials.
The old sentencing guidelines subjected tens of thousands of blacks to long prison terms for crack cocaine convictions while giving far more lenient sentences to those caught with powder who were more likely to be white. It was enacted in 1986 when crack cocaine use was rampant and considered a particularly violent drug.
Under that law, a person convicted of possessing five grams of crack cocaine got the same mandatory prison term as someone with 500 grams, 100 times, of powder cocaine. The Fair Sentencing Act reduced the ratio to about 18-1 and eliminated a five-year mandatory minimum for first-time possession of crack.
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, called on Obama do to more. "Kudos to President Obama for commuting these eight people, but shame on the president for not commuting many more. With over 100,000 people still in federal prison on nonviolent drug charges, clearly thousands more are deserving of the same freedom,'' he said.
White House officials say he doesn't believe that clemency can be a solution on a large scale, because it's such a time intensive process and there are thousands of federal inmates affected. The Obama administration wants to make the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive, and the president called on Congress to act in the new year.
"Commuting the sentences of these eight Americans is an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness,'' Obama said. "But it must not be the last. In the new year, lawmakers should act on the kinds of bipartisan sentencing reform measures already working their way through Congress.
Together, we must ensure that our taxpayer dollars are spent wisely, and that our justice system keeps its basic promise of equal treatment for all.''
In August, Attorney General Eric Holder announced a major shift in federal sentencing policies, targeting long mandatory terms that he said have flooded the nation's prisons with low-level drug offenders and diverted crime-fighting dollars that could be far better spent.
As a first step, Holder has instructed federal prosecutors to stop charging many nonviolent drug defendants with offenses that carry mandatory minimum sentences. His next step will be working with a bipartisan group in Congress to give judges greater discretion in sentencing.