Obama is Overturning Life Sentences to Combat the War on Drugs.

President Obama has been proactive in addressing some of the major concerns of Americans, many of which were issues he campaigned on before his inauguration into the White House. One of those issues was that of incarceration, namely the exceedingly high rates of imprisonment of Americans, the overwhelming majority of whom are men and women of color. Earlier this year, Obama became the first sitting president in history to visit federal inmates, a very powerful example of what appears to be a concerted effort to address the ills of the American criminal justice and prison systems. Most trace today’s exorbitant rates of incarceration to the “War on Drugs” declared by the Reagan administration, a loosely define offensive ostensibly aimed at punishing the users and sellers of drugs in an effort to “clean up” American streets, but which was actualized as an extension of institutionalized racism dating back to the days of slavery. For most, the so-called War on Drugs was a way for the government to maintain control of its minority populations by locking them up, changing the focus from inmate rehabilitation to a lucrative business, one that resulted in today’s high recidivism rates. Furthermore, the non-violent drug offenders facing extensive sentences are prevented from ever voting again should they actually be released one day, which means that in states like Florida, one third of Black men cannot vote. Clearly, the issues at play are complex and hard to unravel, but earlier this month, President Obama took a very quiet but very powerful step in helping to undo all of the damage.

obama prison

In “Two Guys Are Serving Life in Prison for Weed — But Obama Is Letting Them Out Early,” Vice News writer Tess Owen tells the tale of two American inmates, both of whom are serving lifelong sentences for non-violent drug offenses. The first is Charles Cundiff, a father who was nabbed in a DEA sting and suffered serious consequences for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and all he was doing was purchasing some recreational marijuana for personal use. The second is William Deckle, a man whose alleged involvement in the trafficking of marijuana also got him a life sentence. These two Florida men have become a flashpoint in this administration’s fight to untangle the legal issues facing millions of harshly punished citizens for crimes that, by most measures, did not deserve such a heavy handed reaction from “justice.” On December 18, Obama granted clemency to 97 non-violent drug offenders including Cundiff and Deckle, effectively overturning their life sentences and giving them the opportunity to return to society, albeit without a full range of privileges (like voting).

Owen quotes Obama as having called his bold move “another step forward in upholding our fundamental ideals of justice and fairness.” And, according to Owen, “at least 69 people in the U.S. have received sentences of life without parole for marijuana-related crimes,” and that this month’s “commutations were the third time Obama has used his power to pardon during his presidency. He previously granted clemency to 22 drug offenders in March, and another 46 in July.” However, with his tenure as President coming to a close, some fear the fates of the inmates remaining in prisons across the country for lesser crimes will not be championed with such direct action.

What should the next president of this country do to ensure the fight for prison and criminal justice reform maintains its current momentum?

Read: “Two Guys Are Serving Life in Prison for Weed — But Obama Is Letting Them Out Early” at Vice

Related: Thousands of Released Prisoners May Help Reform America’s Criminal Justice System (Video)