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President wields clemency power in drug cases

On the one hand, releasing 22 drug offenders from federal prison might strike many people as being nothing more than a symbolic act, given the scores of thousands of Americans currently housed behind bars on drug-related convictions.

On the other hand, though, President Obama's recent exercise of his commutation power to cut short the sentences of those inmates and free them is certainly anything but symbolic to those individuals.

Moreover, the commutations serve to underscore the administration's strong intent to get the ball rolling on sentencing reforms, which have been strongly endorsed by the president, Attorney General Eric Holder and other administration officials for some time.

Further still, the mass prisoner release -- which more than doubled all the prisoners freed through presidential commutation during the Obama presidential tenure up to that point -- resonates positively with a strongly growing -- and bipartisan -- coalition of voices supporting material sentencing reforms for first-time and nonviolent drug offenders.

Eight of the 22 prisoners granted clemency recently were serving life sentences on drug convictions. In noting the commutations, one White House official cited the disparities existing between sentences handed down in prior years and those imposed under current laws and sentencing standards.

President Obama has long pushed for sentencing reform in select cases, calling the long prison terms handed down to many drug defendants "problematic" for the costs they impose both on individual defendants and for society in general.

It certainly seems likely that more commutations will follow, especially given the broad-based support for reform that has been forthcoming from advocates spanning the political spectrum.

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