Obama pushes prison reform for nonviolent offenders

By Josh Benson

PHOENIX – President Barack Obama on Tuesday called for lower mandatory prison sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, even suggesting that they should be eliminated altogether.

Obama addressed members of the NAACP in Philadelphia as part of his ongoing push to reform the criminal justice system.

“There’s a long history of inequity in the criminal justice system in America,” Obama said. “The statistics cannot be ignored.”

Among those statistics: The United States accounts for only 5 percent of the world’s population, but it contains 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Additionally, the prison population in the U.S. has more than quadrupled since 1980, increasing from about 500,000 to about 2.2 million, the president said during his speech.

“Over the last few decades, we’ve also locked up more and more nonviolent drug offenders than ever before for longer than ever before,” the president added. “And that is the real reason our prison population is so high.”

He called to lower mandatory prison sentences for nonviolent drug crimes or to eliminate such requirements altogether.

Tuesday’s meeting with the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, comes just a day after Obama granted clemency to 46 drug offenders, most of whom are serving lengthy sentences for crimes relating to either crack or powdered cocaine.

The president announced his decision in a video released by the White House on Monday.

“These men and women are not hardened criminals,” he said in the video. “But the overwhelming majority had been sentenced to at least 20 years. Fourteen of them had been sentenced to life for nonviolent drug offenses.”

As of 2012, more than 2,500 prisoners in the U.S. were serving life in prison without the possibility of parole for nonviolent drug offenses, according to an American Civil Liberties Union report. Crimes ranged from selling a single crack rock to sharing LSD during a Grateful Dead concert.

The report highlighted several cases, including one from Louisiana where an undercover police officer approached a homeless man named Fate Vincent Winslow and offered him a $5 commission to find $20 worth of marijuana. Shortly after Winslow provided the pot, authorities arrested him.  Because Winslow had previously been convicted on two separate counts of simple burglary and one count of cocaine possession, Winslow was given a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

Obama has commuted the sentences of 89 prisoners since taking office. The president can only commute federal criminal convictions, though. So for someone like Winslow, clemency has to come at the state level, usually from a governor or a specially designated board.

In May, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon granted pardons to five prisoners serving time for nonviolent offenses. Nixon also commuted the sentence of Jeff Mizanskey, who was serving life without parole for three nonviolent marijuana convictions. Although his sentence was commuted, Mizanskey only became eligible for parole.


News21 is creating a database that will explore marijuana-related arrest statistics from 1980 to 2013. It will break down arrests by available sex, race and per capita rates. Come back in August to see the full News21 report on America’s Weed Rush. Follow Josh Benson on Twitter @JMBenson81