President Obama on Thursday commuted prison sentences for eight people convicted of crack cocaine offenses, including a cousin of Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, one of the president's staunchest supporters.
The president pardoned 13 others, surpassing in the fifth year of his presidency all the acts of clemency from his entire first term.
"I am commuting the prison terms of eight men and women who were sentenced under an unfair system," Mr. Obama said in a statement. "Commuting the sentences of these eight Americans is an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness."
Among those whose sentences were commuted is Reynolds Allen Wintersmith Jr., a first cousin of Mr. Patrick. He was sentenced to life after being convicted in Illinois federal court in 1994 on charges related to cocaine possession and conspiracy to distribute cocaine and its products.
Wintersmith was 19 at the time of his arrest. He reportedly was running drugs for a gang called the Gangster Disciples.
Mr. Patrick is among the president's strongest supporters and has been rumored as a potential replacement for Attorney General Eric H. Holder if and when Mr. Holder leaves his post.
Three years ago, Mr. Obama signed the bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act, which narrowed the disparity of penalties for crimes involving crack and powder cocaine. Those granted clemency Thursday were convicted long before the new law took effect.
"If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society," Mr. Obama said. "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."
The president called on Congress to approve further sentencing reform measures to ensure "that our justice system keeps its basic promise of equal treatment for all."
Mr. Obama granted clemency to only 23 people in his first term. This year, he has commuted sentences or granted pardons for 37 people.
Ronald Reagan signed 250 pardons for federal inmates in his first term; George H.W. Bush authorized 77 in his only term and Bill Clinton, 56 in his first term. George W. Bush granted clemency to 30 federal inmates in his first term.
Mr. Obama's actions were hailed by Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group that urged clemency for several of the people whose sentences were commuted.
"We are excited for the families of those who were granted commutations today, and we are glad that President Obama recognized that these individuals were serving unnecessarily lengthy sentences," said FAMM President Julie Stewart. "The bottom line, however, is that there are several thousand more where they came from."
Among those who had their sentences commuted by the president was Clarence Aaron of Mobile, Ala., who was sentenced in 1993 to life in prison for possession with intent to distribute cocaine. His sentence now will expire in April.
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