WASHINGTON — President Obama granted 98 more commutations to federal inmates Thursday, bringing the total for this year to 688 — the most commutations ever granted by a president in a single year.
In all, he's now shortened the sentences of 872 inmates during his presidency, more than any president since Woodrow Wilson.
The actions were part of Obama's extraordinary effort to use his constitutional power to rectify what he sees as unduly harsh sentences imposed during the "War on Drugs." Through a clemency initiative announced in 2014, he's effectively re-sentenced hundreds of non-violent drug dealers to the sentences they would have received under today's more lenient sentencing guidelines.
Unlike a full pardon, which represents a full legal forgiveness for a crime, a commutation only shortens the sentence while leaving other consequences — like court-ordered supervision and restrictions on firearms ownership — intact.
But while Obama's commutation grants get most of the attention, he's also been quietly denying a record number of commutations at the same time — a function of the unprecedented number of applications submitted through the clemency initiative.
On Oct. 6, for example, the White House announced that Obama granted 102 commutations. It wasn't until a week later that the Justice Department updated its clemency statistics to reveal that he had denied 2,917 commutation petitions on Sept. 30.
Some advocates for inmates say there's not enough transparency about why some get clemency while others wait.
"We want answers for the families who are still waiting for their clemency," said Jessica Jackson Sloan, national director of the pro-clemency group Cut 50. "There needs to be more communication about why people are being denied."
As of Oct. 7, Obama has granted just 5.5% of commutation applications — still more than many of his predecessors. President George W. Bush granted just 0.1% of commutation applications that reached his desk, but was more generous with full pardons at this point in his presidency.
"While there has been much attention paid to the number of commutations issued by the president, at the core, we must remember that there are personal stories behind these numbers," White House Counsel Neil Eggleston wrote on the White House web site. "These are individuals -- many of whom made mistakes at a young age — who have diligently worked to rehabilitate themselves while incarcerated."
Eggleston said 42 of the inmates who had received commutations were serving life sentences.
An increasing number of Obama's commutations have come with strings attached — usually a requirement that the clemency recipient undergo drug treatment. At least one prisoner, Arnold Ray Jones of Texas, has refused to accept clemency because of that condition.