President Barack Obama announced Wednesday that he has commuted the sentences of 61 federal prisoners convicted of nonviolent drug offenses — more than a third of whom were serving mandatory life sentences — including two from Louisville.
Obama’s move comes after 162 similar commutations were issued last year, as he continues to advocate for the bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for federal drug convictions, allow more judicial discretion in sentencing, and expand prison programming and early releases.
“The power to grant pardons and commutations… embodies the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance after having made a mistake in their lives that led to a conviction under our laws,” wrote Obama in his letter to those who received clemency.
The 61 who received clemency today included Robert Anthony Anderson and Robin Evette Shoulders of Louisville, both of whom were convicted for trying to sell cocaine.
Anderson was sentenced to life in prison in 1994 at the age of 24 for cocaine trafficking. According to a Courier-Journal article from that time, Anderson was convicted for trying to buy 15 kilograms of cocaine from a police informant, and due to three previous cocaine trafficking convictions, became the first person in Kentucky to receive a mandatory life sentence with no parole. His sentence is now commuted to expire in one year.
Shoulders was convicted for the possession of and intent to distribute cocaine and sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2002. Her sentence is now commuted to expire in September.
Noting the need for Congress to pass further criminal justice reforms, a post on the White House blog addressing the commutations said that “clemency of individual cases alone cannot fix decades of overly punitive sentencing policies. So while we continue to work to resolve as many clemency applications as possible – and make no mistake, we are working hard at this – only broader criminal justice reform can truly bring justice to the many thousands of people behind bars serving unduly harsh and outdated sentences.”
A press release from national criminal justice reform advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance called for the passage of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act — which is co-sponsored by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul — but blamed Sen. Mitch McConnell for not allowing the Senate to vote on it.
“I am gratified that President Obama continues to use his powers to release individuals who deserve to have a second chance at life,” said Anthony Papa, the Drug Policy Alliance’s media relations manager, who was granted clemency in New York after serving 12 years for a first-time nonviolent drug offense. “These horrific drug sentences have destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives, overwhelmingly people of color, and it’s time Congress righted these wrongs. We need to bring our brothers and sisters home now. ”