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Obama pardons cocaine convicts to cut crowding

– President Barack Obama on Thursday commuted the sentences of eight people serving lengthy time for crack cocaine convictions, part of the administration’s effort to eliminate overcrowding in federal prisons.

Each of them had served at least 15 years and had been convicted prior to the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act that seeks to reduce the sentencing disparity between those convicted of crack and powder cocaine crimes, according to the White House.

Under that law, the same individuals would have received shorter prison terms and, in some cases, would have completed their time, Obama said in a statement.

The president’s decision came after the Justice Department recommended the cases to the White House.

Obama had previously commuted a sentence in only one case, ordering the release two years ago of Eugenia Jennings, who was sentenced in 2001 to 22 years in prison for distributing cocaine.

“In several cases, the sentencing judges expressed frustration that the law at the time did not allow them to issue punishments that more appropriately fit the crime,” Obama said Thursday.

“Commuting the sentences of these eight Americans is an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness,” he said.

The White House also announced that Obama had granted pardons to 13 people, including four in Virginia. Their offenses included distribution of illegal drugs, wire fraud, money laundering and bank embezzlement.

Obama, who has now pardoned 52 people, has used the presidential pardon far less frequently than his predecessors. George W. Bush had pardoned 97 people at the same juncture in his presidency, and Bill Clinton had pardoned 74.

The Justice Department has been pushing to reduce the burgeoning prison population, which has grown by about 800 percent since 1980 – during which time the country’s population increased by about a third.

Federal, state and local authorities spend nearly $83 billion each year on corrections, law enforcement officials say. To maintain its prisons, the federal government alone spends $6.4 billion a year – 25 percent of the entire Justice Department’s annual budget.

In his statement, Obama called on Congress to make more changes to sentencing laws to “ensure that our taxpayer dollars are spent wisely, and that our justice system keeps its basic promise of equal treatment for all.”

The effort has received bipartisan support, with Republican governors in some of the most conservative states leading the way. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., praised Obama for “finding justice for individuals given excessive sentences for nonviolent crimes.”

Paul also pushed for more action to reduce mandatory minimum jail terms, saying on his Twitter account that commuting a handful of cases doesn’t “solve the problem.”

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee who expressed skepticism last month during a hearing on the practice of commuting sentences in order to let prisoners out early, declined to comment.