Last July, President Obama announced, in a video message, that he was commuting the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders in federal prison. Not since the Johnson administration had so many sentences been commuted in a single day. It was a small corrective, Obama said, to the “inequities in the criminal-justice system” and the unnecessarily harsh sentences with which these men and women had been saddled. He had already commuted 30 such sentences the previous winter and has since kept going: The latest 42 grants of clemency, announced by the White House two weeks ago, brings the total to 348. More than a third of these prisoners were serving life sentences, often with no possibility of parole.
In a letter to those granted clemency last July, President Obama conceded how difficult reentry might be: “Perhaps even you are unsure how you will adjust to your new circumstances,” he wrote. The Office of the White House Counsel was already exploring ways to give those released a shot at success and, on a more basic level, how to get from whichever federal prison they had wound up in to a halfway house near their homes (often hundreds of miles away). One person the administration approached was Michael Romano, director of the Stanford Three Strikes Project, a criminal-justice group at Stanford Law School. Romano had been dealing with a similar problem in California, after petitioning for the release of thousands of prisoners under recent changes to the state’s Three Strikes Law. The only solution Romano knew of was the one he arrived at himself, somewhat inadvertently. So when the White House called, he remembers, “I just started telling them about Carlos and Roby.”