Whatever reminds you of the holiday season — snow, end-of-year donations, or lots of lights on your neighbor’s house — you might not necessarily think of pardons and commutations for prisoners. However, that's precisely what President Barack Obama’s been up to.

In a show of holiday spirit, Obama gave clemency to 95 federal prisoners earlier this month. The clemency reduces the sentences of those who were put in prison under mandatory minimum terms. In addition to the clemency action, Obama pardoned two inmates outright.

The granting of clemency to inmates just before the holidays has been a regular act for Obama, which leads some to wonder whether these actions have been “saved up” throughout the rest of the year, and why inmates couldn’t have been released sooner if this is the case.

Still, come April 16th, most of the 95 people Obama granted clemency will be released and given a chance to move on with their lives. And despite criticism for not granting enough clemency requests, Obama has commuted the sentences of 184 people throughout his terms in office, which is more than the past five presidents combined.

Most of the prisoners to be released were put in prison for drug-related crimes. Their releases align with a popular movement to reduce longer mandatory minimum sentences related to drug incidents and to give judges more leniency in doling out punishments. But the number of offenders who have their sentences commuted remains relatively small when compared to the 35,000 inmates who have applied for clemency. There are many more in similar situations who won’t see the same relief anytime soon.

The issue of sentencing for low-level drug offenders isn’t just a federal one. States have been going back and forth on the issue for ages. Take Indiana’s current debate over the severity of punishment for drug offenders, or California’s vote to change the status of drug possession to a misdemeanor. It’s an issue that likely won’t be resolved completely for years yet to come, but the trend seems to be in favor of lighter sentences for lower crimes.


Image Credit: Erce via Shutterstock

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Stefani is a writer and urban planner based in Oakland, CA. She holds a master’s in City and Regional Planning from UC Berkeley and a bachelor’s in Human Biology from Stanford University. In her free time, she is often found reading diverse literature, writing stories, or enjoying the outdoors. Follow her on Twitter: @stefanicox