President Biden said he would commute the sentences of 11 people who had been jailed for nonviolent drug offenses and pardon convictions for marijuana use and possession on federal lands as part of a broader effort by his administration to address racial disparities in drug sentencing.
Each of the clemency recipients would have been eligible for shorter sentencing under current laws, Mr. Biden said in a statement on Friday. Their original sentences — characterized by the president as “disproportionately long” — ranged from decades to life in prison for attempting to distribute drugs, including cocaine and methamphetamine, according to a list published by the White House.
Mr. Biden also said that he had pardoned more offenses involving possession of marijuana under federal law and D.C. law, which builds on his decision last year to pardon thousands of people who had been convicted of marijuana possession under federal law. The new pardons would apply to people found guilty of using or attempting to possess marijuana on federal lands, in addition to simple possession, according to a presidential proclamation issued on Friday.
Such offenses are outnumbered by those at the state level, which Mr. Biden does not have the authority to pardon.
“Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana,” Mr. Biden said. “It’s time that we right these wrongs.”
The president also urged governors to review state offenses to further expand the number of people who could be eligible for similar pardons.
Mr. Biden’s actions are meant to address disparities between the sentences faced by white Americans and those imposed on Black and Latino Americans, and to appeal to the majority of Americans who believe that marijuana should be legalized. As an election year approaches, Mr. Biden and his advisers are also trying to draw a sharper contrast with former President Donald J. Trump, the Republican front-runner.
Also campaigning for a second term, Mr. Trump’s rhetoric on crime has grown more violent. He has said that he admires the freedom that despots have to execute drug dealers. In a sign of the potency of criminal justice reform as an election issue, however, Mr. Trump is also grappling with advisers over how much he should highlight his work to pass the First Step Act, a bipartisan drug sentencing reform law signed in 2018.
As a candidate in 2020, Mr. Biden was assailed by critics for his past involvement in crafting legislation that criminal justice experts say led to mass incarceration that devastated America’s Black communities. As president, he has made strides to close racial gaps created by those policies, though he has not made as much progress as many activists had hoped.
“While executive clemency is a tool to correct past injustices, there is much more to be done,” Cynthia W. Roseberry, acting director of the justice division at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement, noting that the clemency did not apply to noncitizens.
Mr. Biden’s sentencing commutations build on federal guidelines issued last year by Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, which instructed prosecutors to pursue the same charges and to seek equivalent sentences for powder as for crack cocaine offenses.
A report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission in 2022 showed that 78 percent of people convicted of crack trafficking were Black. By comparison, 25 percent of those convicted of trafficking powder cocaine were Black, according to the commission.
Representative Steven Horsford, Democrat of Nevada and the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, called the guidelines “a positive step forward in addressing longstanding racial disparities in crack and powder cocaine sentencing,” adding in a statement that “it is our hope that clemency be granted to more Black Americans who have been criminalized by the decades-old policies of the war on drugs era.”
Criminal-justice and sentencing activists said that Mr. Biden’s efforts to expand on marijuana pardons signaled a recognition that more could be done by the president to correct what they believe are outdated laws surrounding marijuana possession, attempted possession and use.
“It’s a significant broadening of the category of people being helped by the president’s clemency powers,” Udi Ofer, a professor at the Princeton University School of Public and International Affairs, said. “This is consistent with historical uses of the president’s categorical clemency powers to fix a systemic injustice.”
Still, people convicted of marijuana possession or use on federal land are vastly outnumbered by those who were arrested and convicted of those offenses at the state level. Only 92 people were sentenced on federal marijuana possession charges in 2017, out of nearly 20,000 drug convictions, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
Some 44 states and territories have enacted medical marijuana, decriminalization or legalization provisions, according to a January 2023 report by the sentencing commission. By the end of 2021, 19 states and territories had provisions allowing for the expunging or sealing of prior marijuana convictions.
Other additional recommendations by Mr. Biden in his initial announcement last year are still under review, including an assessment of whether marijuana should still be in the same legal category as drugs like heroin and LSD.
In August, the Health and Human Services Department recommended to the Drug Enforcement Administration that marijuana be moved from a Schedule I to a Schedule III controlled substance, a category for drugs that have less potential for abuse or dependency. Officials with the Drug Enforcement Administration did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the status of that review on Friday.