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December 19th, 2013
05:58 PM ET

Obama commutes sentences of 8 Americans, law professor says move 'long overdue'

(CNN) - President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of eight Americans Thursday, something he has rarely done compared to presidents in the past several decades.

One was a first-time offender who received three life terms in 1993 when he was 22. Another got a life sentence in 1997 for hiding her boyfriend's stash in her house. All eight are federal inmates convicted of crack cocaine offenses, each has been in prison for at least 15 years, six were sentenced to life. Soon, all of them will be free.

"Three years ago, I signed the bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act, which dramatically narrowed the disparity between penalties for crack and powder cocaine offenses," Obama said in a statement. "Today, I am commuting the prison terms of eight men and women who were sentenced under an unfair system."

The president goes on to call on Congress to pass sentencing reforms.

"It's long overdue," said Georgetown Law School professor Paul Butler, who has spoken out against mandatory minimum sentencing, specifically its effects on the African-American community.

"These are people, who under current sentencing law would have been out of prison a long time ago," said Butler.

Federal sentencing laws on crack were not based on science, but emotion, says Butler.

"There was this emotional outburst from Congress after a basketball player named Len Bias died. Congress got into this familiar partisan warfare between Democrats and Republicans about who was going to be toughest on crime," said Butler. "The end result was this 100-1 disparity between crack and powder, even though there's no real difference."

When Butler was a federal prosecutor, he had a case where a police officer offered to buy cocaine from a young man, who gave him powder. But the police officer insisted on crack.

"All the guy did was go upstairs, put some baking soda in with the powder, turned it into crack. And the guy's exposure, his sentence went up to ten years. Just because it was crack," said Butler.

If that young man had sold the cop powder, his sentence would have been just two or three years, much shorter.

"It's hard to know who actually uses drugs, but the idea is that crack is consumed more by African Americans, perhaps because it's less expensive. It could be, though, that's just a function of who the police arrest," said Butler.

"There are certainly white people who use crack, just like with all the drug laws, though, they are selectively enforced against African Americans," said Butler.

Harsh sentencing laws are one of the reasons the U.S. has one of the highest prison populations in the world. The country has 5% of the world's population, but 25% of the world's prisoners. The U.S. also locks up prisoners much longer than countries, like Canada, France, or Italy, says Butler.

"There's no reason to think we get more crime control benefit from locking up people so long, so this is an important signal from the president about racheting down the war on drugs. It's about being smart on crime rather than just being tough on crime," said Butler.

In some of the cases of the sentences the President commuted, Obama says that even at the time, some of the judges expressed disappointment that they had to sentence the individuals to very harsh, even life-in-prison penalties. But they were forced to because of mandatory minimums.

The Supreme Court has since recognized that judges couldn't be judges with mandatory minimums, says Butler.

"They just had to impose these sentences, that wasn't unfair. They made the mandatory sentencing guidelines no longer mandatory. Lots of judges are still following them," said Butler.

The law professor said there are 8,000 people in prison who are "in the same boat" as the eight Americans freed by Obama.

"There is legislation pending before Congress because again, one of the concerns is it costs so much money to lock up these largely young people for all this time. Aren't there more cost-effective ways to deal with people who have problems with drugs?" said Butler.

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