WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama commuted the prison sentences of eight people convicted of crack cocaine offences Thursday, saying they were punished under an unfair legal disparity that overwhelmingly hurt impoverished black communities.
All of the inmates had been imprisoned for at least 15 years, including six who were sentenced to life behind bars. Most will be released by April 17.
The prisoners likely would have received lighter jail terms if they had been sentenced under a law Obama signed three years ago that reduced sentencing disparities that once treated crack cocaine offences more harshly than powder cocaine ones.
Obama said the six men and two women were jailed under an "unfair system" in which someone arrested with one gram of crack cocaine received the same sentencing as someone arrested with 100 grams of powdered cocaine, a ratio that was mitigated by the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act.
"If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society," Obama said in a statement.
"Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognised as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year."
The powerful American Civil Liberties Union rights group hailed Obama's decision but stressed that he has one of the smallest pardon and commutation records of any US president in recent history.
In five years in office, Obama had previously granted 39 pardons and commuted one sentence.
"This is one important step toward undoing the damage that extreme sentencing has done to so many in our criminal justice system," said ACLU deputy legal director Vanita Gupta.
"We hope the president will continue to exercise his clemency powers and lend his support to systemic reform that will make our criminal justice system smarter, fairer and more humane."
The 2010 fair sentencing measure reduced penalties such that someone arrested with one gram of crack now receives the same sentence as as someone arrested with 18 grams of powdered cocaine, and eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for simple crack cocaine possession.
Just a quarter of crack cocaine users are black, but 81 per cent of people condemned for crack possession or dealing were African Americans in 2007, according to the US Sentencing Commission.