“Can you imagine a better birthday present for my daughter?” When Oscar López Rivera said this, he was not remarking on expensive jewelry or a sentimental gift. Rather, it was the commutation of his prison sentence. López Rivera— a political prisoner convicted of plotting against the United States in his efforts to fight for Puerto Rican independence —has served only thirty-five years of his seventy-year sentence. However, thanks to President Obama’s decision to commute his sentence, Rivera will be released this May.  

Although commuting the sentences of López Rivera and many more prisoners was a wise choice that in no way threatened national security, Obama’s decision proved to be extremely controversial. While many well-known public figures, such as Lin Manuel Miranda, the creator of the Broadway show Hamilton, and Bernie Sanders, former Democratic presidential candidate, celebrated López Rivera’s commutation, others denounced Obama for threatening the American people by releasing the so-called terrorist.

López Rivera, a U.S. citizen and decorated Vietnam War veteran, was a member of the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN), a group in support of Puerto Rican independence that was accused of carrying out numerous bombings. However, López Rivera himself was never connected to the bombings. Instead, he was convicted of “seditious conspiracy,” opposing the United States. Considering this, and the fact that he and many other members of the FALN have since renounced violence, it seems clear that this seventy-four year old man who has spent more than half of his life in prison should be liberated.

Obama also commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning, a transgender woman who has been incarcerated at a men’s military prison for the past seven years, despite the fact that she stated her life was at risk. Manning was convicted of leaking hundreds of thousands of files in 2010. These files depicted innocent civilians being attacked, and although the files were all classified at or below the “secret” level, Manning received the longest sentence ever given for a leak conviction: thirty-five years. Manning’s lawyers argue that the information she leaked never caused harm to the United States. Her sentence’s length was unwarranted and she is being rightfully emancipated.

Obama shortened the sentences of 207 other prisoners and pardoned 64 prisoners on January 17. Two days later, he shortened the sentences of another 330 prisoners, the most commutations a president has ever granted in a single day. While presidents have previously been known to use their final days in office to pardon prisoners or shorten their sentences, Obama’s total numbers are jaw-dropping. He has granted a total of 1,715 commutations: more than the past thirteen presidents combined.

Many of these prisoners are serving sentences that are far too long and do not fit the crimes that they committed. The prisoners that were released for the most part did not commit violent crimes. Obama’s decision to grant clemency to so many prisoners is one step in the right direction towards fairer sentencing and sparks an important conversation about mass incarceration in America.