Obama commutes 46 prison sentences, including two from Chicago

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President Barack Obama speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Monday.| AP Photo

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama commuted the sentences Monday of two Chicago men in prison – one for life – because the punishment “didn’t fit the crime.”

One of Obama’s domestic priorities that has taken on a high profile in recent months is reforming the criminal justice system – a topic he barely touched in his first term and will surely be taking with him in his post-presidential portfolio.

“I am really interested in the possibilities, the prospect of bipartisan legislation around the criminal justice system,” Obama said at his last news conference on June 30.

One of Obama’s possible GOP partners — making true the saying politics makes strange bedfellows — is Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

“Paul, to his credit, is somebody that has demonstrated and signaled a willingness to be good partner with the Obama administration on this issue,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said at the Monday briefing.

This week, the Obama White House is throwing a spotlight on sentencing inequities – with a highlight to be the first-ever presidential visit to a federal prison on Thursday when Obama tours the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution outside of Oklahoma City.

The Chicago men granted clemency – Joseph Burgos who was handed a 30-year sentence in 1993 and Romain Dukes sentenced to life in 1997 – were two of 46 commutations Obama announced on Monday.

Burgos was convicted of distributing cocaine and sentenced in 1993 to 360 months’ imprisonment, eight years’ of supervised release and a $200,000 fine.

Dukes’ life sentence came after he was convicted of drug conspiracy charges.

With clemency, both men will leave prison on November 10, 2015.

Obama wrote a letter to each of the 46 – most all in prison on drug charges — saying that it is a “basic belief” that “people deserve a second chance after having made a mistake in their lives.”

Duke, 43, is doing his time at the medium security wing of the Gilmer Federal Prison facility in Glenville, W. Va., according to Bureau of Prison records.

Burgos, 66, listed on Bureau of Prison records with a release date of Aug. 17, 2017, is incarcerated at the low-security Sandstone Federal Prison in Sandstone, N.M.

A person who receives a commutation gets a break in having a sentence cut short. However, the conviction still stays on the record.

Chicago attorney Richard Ross Mottweiler, who represented Burgos at his trial before a jury in the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in Chicago, was surprised when I phoned him to tell him the news.

During the trial, Mottweiler recalled Monday, one of his defense theories was that Burgos, who at the time was dating Dawn Rosten, the daughter of the then powerful Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., was entrapped. Under that theory, Burgos was “set up by government people who didn’t like that he was dating Dan Rostenkowski’s daughter.”

In a video showing Obama signing the commutations, the president said that the 46 were not “hardened criminals” and their long “punishments didn’t fit the crime. And if they were sentenced under today’s laws, nearly all of them would have already served their time.”

Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates said in a statement that the commutations were the result of a drive that started last year, after Obama asked the Justice Department to start “identifying and recommending for executive clemency those non-violent, low-level offenders who received harsh sentences they would not receive if sentenced today.

“The President’s decision to commute the sentences of 46 more individuals today is another sign of our commitment to correcting these inequities. We will continue to recommend to the President appropriate candidates for clemency and we will continue to work with Congress on recalibrating our sentencing laws for non-violent drug offenders.”

A White House official said when Obama keynotes the NAACP convention in Philadelphia on Tuesday, he “will lay out the case for comprehensive juvenile and criminal justice reform that makes our system, fairer, smarter, and more cost-effective while keeping the American people safe and secure.”

“Today, unwarranted disparities and unduly harsh sentences undermine trust in our legal system and offend basic principles of fairness and justice in America. Fortunately, state and local elected officials, civil rights, law enforcement, conservative, faith, business, and youth leaders across the country are coming together to recognize that we need to act.”

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is already working on sentencing reform. A proposal in his pending “Smarter Sentencing Act” legislation would give judges get more authority to review sentences for non-violent drug offenders.

To those who won the clemency, Obama urged them in his letter to make the most of it.

“I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around,” Obama wrote. “Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity. It will not be easy, and you will confront many who doubt people with criminal records can change. Perhaps even you are unsure of how you will adjust to your new circumstances. But remember that you have the capacity to make good choices.”

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