With 1 year left on in his first term as president, President Obama issued his first commutation to a federal prisoner. Commutation of a sentence involves the reduction of legal penalties, especially in terms of imprisonment. Unlike a pardon, a commutation does not nullify the conviction and is often conditional.
This particular commutation of a federal sentence is especially interesting because the sentence imposed involved crack cocaine. Recently the United States Sentencing Commission addressed the disparity in sentencing between powder cocaine and crack cocaine, in order to ease sentencing of crack cocaine offenses. The Fair Sentencing Act affects all future crack cocaine convictions. But over the summer of 2011, the United States Sentencing Commission voted unanimously to make the new crack guidelines retroactive.
The incarcerated defendant Jennings “had asked a federal judge to reduce her sentence after the federal sentencing commission changed the guidelines for cocaine offenses, but the judge ruled in 2009 that he had no authority to do so because she was sentenced as a “career offender” and there had been no reduction for that category.” Jennings will be released December 21, 2011. President Obama’s commutation accomplished what the court had no authority to do.