By NANCY BENAC
WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama cut the prison sentences of 46 non-violent offenders on Monday, including 14 who were serving life sentences, saying "their punishments didn't fit the crime."
"These men and women were not hardened criminals," Obama said in a video released by the White House. He said the overwhelming majority of the 46 had been sentenced to at least 20 years.
The move was part of a broader effort by the administration to make the U.S. criminal justice system fairer. Obama has now issued nearly 90 commutations during his presidency, most of them to non-violent offenders sentenced for drug crimes under outdated sentencing guidelines. A commutation leaves the conviction in place, but ends the punishment.
Four of the prisoners are based in Texas, two of them from Houston.
Joe Louis Champion was sentenced to life in prison, ten years of supervised release and a $4,000 fine on June 19, 1997. He was convicted of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 376.9 grams of cocaine base (crack) and aiding and abetting the possession with intent to distribute 376.9 grams of cocaine base (crack). The remainder of his fine will be remitted.
Robert Earl Thomas Jr. was sentenced to 262 months in prison with five years of supervised release on June 29, 1999. He was convicted of possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance.
Clarance Callies, based out of San Antonio, was sentenced to 240 months in prison and 8 years of supervised released on March 25, 2002. He was convicted of conspiracy to distribute in excess of 50 grams of a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of cocaine base (“crack cocaine”) and possession with intent to distribute in excess of 50 grams of a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of cocaine base (“crack cocaine”).
Juan Diego Castro, based out of Laredo, was sentenced to 240 months in prison and 10 years of supervised release on Feb. 1, 2002. He was convicted of possession with intent to distribute a quantity in excess of five kilograms of cocaine.
Champion, Thomas, Callies and Castro, along with the other affected prisoners will serve their sentences until Nov. 10, when the sentences will be commuted.
Obama wrote a personal letter to each of the 46 individuals to notify them of their commutation.
In a letter to Jerry Bailey, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison for conspiracy to violate laws against crack-cocaine, Obama praised Bailey for showing the potential to turn his life around.
"Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity," Obama wrote in the letter, which was sent to Bailey's address at a federal correctional facility in Georgia,. "It will not be easy," Obama said, "and you will confront many who doubt people with criminal records can change."
Obama's lawyer, White House counsel Neil Eggleston, predicted the president would issue even more commutations before leaving office in early 2017. But he also said that Obama's powers to fix the problem were limited, adding that "clemency alone will not fix decades of overly punitive sentencing policies."
Obama this week is devoting considerable attention to the criminal justice system. He plans to lay out ideas for how to improve the fairness of the system during a speech to the NAACP in Philadelphia on Tuesday. And on Thursday, he is to become the first sitting president to visit a federal prison when he goes to the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution outside of Oklahoma City. While there, he will meet with law enforcement officials and inmates.
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