In one of his last acts as President of the United States, Barack Obama pardoned or commuted the sentences of 273 federal prisoners, including 14 North Carolina men. One North Carolina man was granted a pardon and 13 others will be freed early. All of the men were incarcerated for nonviolent narcotics offenses. President Obama issued the pardons and commutations on Jan. 17.
Most of those being pardoned or seeing their sentences commuted were sent to prison for either possessing or selling crack cocaine. President Obama heeded calls from civil rights organizations and criminal justice reform groups when he signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law in 2010. Prior to the law, the penalties for selling or possessing crack cocaine were significantly higher than they were for selling or possessing powder cocaine. The law reduced the penalty ratios for the two drugs from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1.
President Obama has spoken often about the need to address mass incarceration and reform the nation’s sentencing laws, but the Fair Sentencing Act was the only significant piece of legislation addressing the issue that Congress sent to the White House during his eight years in office. All of the North Carolina men who received pardons or commutations from Obama on Jan. 19 were sentenced prior to the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act.
A conviction of possessing or selling drugs can have severe consequences, but most narcotics cases are either dismissed or resolved when defendants enter into plea agreements. Experienced criminal defense attorneys may seek to have drug charges dismissed when the police may have strayed beyond boundaries established by the U.S. Constitution or the evidence gathered by them is less than compelling. Lawyers may also encourage their clients to plead guilty in return for leniency when the evidence against them is strong.