Obama commutes sentences of 95 prisoners and pardons two

President Barack Obama today announced he has commuted the sentences of 95 federal prisoners, and granted two prisoners pardons. Most of them are nonviolent drug offenders.

This is the most he has done at one time, and more than doubles the number of clemency orders he has granted since taking office. His signature today sets free 40 prisoners who are serving life sentences.

Many of the inmates will be released in April, 2016.

"I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around," Mr. Obama wrote in letters that he signed personally in the Oval Office yesterday, one for each of the prisoners. "Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity."

The road ahead "will not be easy, and you will confront many who doubt people with criminal records can change," he wrote.

"But remember that you have the capacity to make good choices."

From the New York Times' coverage:

The move comes as the president is pressing for a rewrite of criminal justice laws that would reverse a decades-long trend of steep penalties for nonviolent offenses. Those penalties have swelled the nation's prison population, disproportionately impacting African-American and Hispanic men. The vast majority of Friday's commutations went to nonviolent drug offenders who have been imprisoned for more than a decade, behaved well in prison and would have been sentenced to fewer years under current rules.

The Washington Post has a tidy little explainer up, if you don't know what clemency, commutation, or pardon means in federal law:

People can apply for executive clemency — meaning pardons and commutations — and these requests go through the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney. The applications go through the deputy attorney general's office before making their way to the White House.

When a sentence is commuted, that does not suggest that the person was innocent, according to the Justice Department. It does cut off a sentence, but it does not do away with what are known as "civil disabilities" — another way of saying that convicted felons can't sit on federal juries or, in some cases, vote.

A pardon, meanwhile, is something different. When presidents pardon people, they also don't retroactively say that the person was innocent, but they do take away these civil disabilities. In some states, there are also ways for people can regain the right to vote without getting a presidential pardon, but a presidential pardon is still the only way for felons to be allowed to possess firearms.