​Obama Commutes Sentence For Drug Convict

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April 16, 2021

President Barack Obama commutes sentence on Tuesday by cutting prison time for a drug convict to more than three extra years because of a typographical error. The sentence is a reminder that the Justice Department needs to improve its clemency.

White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler said the president’s commutation of Ceasar Cantu’s sentence from 15 to 11 1/2 years demonstrates “the importance of clemency as a fail-safe mechanism” for worthy inmates who run out of options.

Obama Clemency Recommendation

Ruemmler said Obama has directed the Justice Department to improve its clemency recommendation process and recruit more applications from convicts.

“The president believes that one important purpose can be to help correct the effects of outdated and overly harsh sentences that Congress and the American people have since recognized are no longer in the best interests of justice,” Ruemmler said in remarks prepared for delivery Tuesday at New York University’s law school. “This effort also reflects the reality that our overburdened federal prison population includes many low-level, nonviolent offenders without significant criminal histories.”

Cantu is only the 10th inmate Obama has granted a commutation, and his case was unusual. He pleaded guilty to drug trafficking and money laundering after prosecutors said he used his Houston trucking company to help move tons of marijuana from Mexico through Texas and into Virginia.

Sentence Reduced

Cantu was sentenced in Danville, Va., in 2006 by U.S. District Judge Jackson Kiser, who based his decision on a pre-sentencing report that had a critical error in “base offense level” that takes into consideration the crime’s severity and the defendant’s criminal history to come up with a sentencing guideline.

The report correctly listed Cantu’s level at 34 in one part, but incorrectly listed it at 36 in the portion that calculated a recommended sentence of up to nearly 22 years.

Kiser noted at sentencing that although Cantu didn’t have a criminal record, the quantity of drugs involved in his case deserved a sentence within the recommended guidelines. The judge told Cantu the best he could do was sentence him at the bottom of the guideline. But if the calculation had been correct, the bottom of the guideline would have been 3 1/2 years less.