President Barack Obama

Statement from Sherrilyn A. Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. applauds President Obama’s decision today to commute the sentences of eight people currently serving extraordinarily inflated prison terms for nonviolent crack cocaine offenses. The President’s ability to commute sentences is an extraordinary power, and his decision to exercise that power in these cases sends a powerful signal that the White House is committed to reducing mass incarceration and working to restore fairness to the criminal justice system.

Excessive sentencing has devastated African American communities around the country and has resulted in dislocation and economic destabilization, as well as broken family and community ties. In acknowledgment of this, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA) in 2010 to reduce the unfair, arbitrary, unjustified, and racially discriminatory crack cocaine/powder cocaine sentencing ratio from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1. LDF has continued to argue that there is no disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine.

Today’s announcement comes on the heels of a decision by a sharply divided Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals which ruled that the FSA does not apply retroactively to the thousands of people still serving time for nonviolent crack cocaine offenses, the majority of whom are African-American. Seven of the judges on that court dissented from the majority decision. In his dissent, Judge R. Guy Cole wrote “Congress repealed the law because the ratio is unjustified, with the full awareness of its discriminatory effects. Using the ratio to deny sentence modifications continues to treat African-American offenders more harshly than White offenders, despite Congress’s aim to the contrary.”

Vincent Southerland, Senior Counsel in the Criminal Justice Practice who presented oral argument before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of individuals serving sentences based on the 100-to-1 ratio, urged the court to apply the Fair Sentencing Act’s new 18-to-1 crack-powder cocaine sentencing ratio to those still serving sentences under the old 100-to-1 ratio. 

We are extremely pleased that President Obama has decided to commute the sentences of eight nonviolent drug offenders and hopeful that he will continue the work of remedying an unfair drug sentencing regime—one that has destroyed individuals, families and communities for far too long.