WASHINGTON — President Obama ended a tumultuous year in the nation’s capital by commuting the sentences of 95 federal prisoners and granting two pardons on Friday, building on his push to reorient the nation’s criminal justice system with a holiday season stroke of his pen.
The set of commutations was the largest of Mr. Obama’s presidency, and it more than doubled the number he has granted since taking office. Most of those who will be freed are nonviolent drug offenders given long sentences during an earlier crackdown on crime. Forty of them will be spared life terms.
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The move came as the president is pressing for an overhaul of criminal justice laws to reverse decades of steep penalties that have packed the nation’s prisons and jails, disproportionately affecting African-American and Hispanic men. The vast majority of Friday’s commutations were given to criminals who have been imprisoned for more than a decade, behaved well in prison and would have been sentenced to fewer years under current rules.
At an end-of-the-year news conference on Friday before leaving town for a two-week break in Hawaii, Mr. Obama called the commutations “another step forward in upholding our ideals of justice and fairness.” He said he hoped to use his final year in office to pass bipartisan legislation revamping the federal criminal justice system.
“If we can show at the federal level that we can be smart on crime, more cost effective, more just, more proportionate, then we can set a trend for other states to follow as well,” Mr. Obama said. “And that’s our hope.”
“This is not going to be something that’s reversed overnight,” he added. “It took 20 years for us to get to the point where we are now. And only 20 years, probably, before we reverse some of these major trends.”
Mr. Obama used the news conference to wrap up a year in which he secured landmark but contentious international agreements on trade, climate change and Iran’s nuclear program, while striking deals with Republicans in Congress to put aside spending caps, extend tax breaks, build and repair highways and bridges, impose new limits on surveillance programs and rewrite the No Child Left Behind education law.
But he ended the year struggling to reassure a jittery nation that, according to polls, has grown increasingly dissatisfied with his handling of the Islamic State and the threat of terrorism. Weeks after the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., Mr. Obama headed off for Hawaii with just 44 percent of Americans approving of his job performance in the latest survey by The New York Times and CBS News.
He said some terrorist plots were hard to detect and prevent, pointing to the California attackers, who were evidently inspired by the Islamic State but not acting under direct instruction. “Here, essentially, you have ISIL trying to encourage or induce somebody who may be prey to this kind of propaganda,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “And it becomes more difficult to see.”
He said that visitors and immigrants seeking visas already faced scrutiny of their publicly available social media posts, such as those made on Facebook, but that examining private messages was harder and might not be appropriate. “Keep in mind it was only a couple of years ago we were having a major debate about whether government was becoming too much like Big Brother,” he said.
Mr. Obama planned to stop in California on the way to Hawaii to meet with families of some of the 14 people who were killed in the San Bernardino attack.
At the news conference, Mr. Obama again defended his strategy in Syria despite bipartisan criticism, and he rejected the contention that the United States should support authoritarian leaders in places like Libya and Egypt.
Still, he acknowledged mistakes by the international coalition that helped topple Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi “for not moving swiftly enough and underestimating the need to rebuild government there quickly.”
“As a consequence,” he added, “you now have a very bad situation.”
He repeated his determination to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, promising to make another effort to persuade Congress. But if lawmakers continue to refuse, he did not rule out taking executive action, despite recent comments by his attorney general, Loretta E. Lynch, that the law does not allow him to bring detainees to the United States on his own.
“We will wait until Congress has definitively said no before we say anything definitive about my executive authority here,” he said.
The commutations granted on Friday brought Mr. Obama’s total to 184, exceeding all those awarded by the last six presidents combined. But he has been stingier with full pardons, and his latest action was still minuscule in the context of the tens of thousands of federal inmates who have applied for clemency as his administration has aggressively sought to correct the excesses of the past. White House officials argued that Mr. Obama’s use of clemency has put human faces on the issue.
“The theory is not that this by itself is going to make a dent in the prison population — this is part of an overall approach,” W. Neil Eggleston, the White House counsel, said in an interview. “He thinks it fits into the broader effort of criminal justice reform. What it does show is, on a very individual basis, the way some sentences in the past have been excessive.”
This is one area where the president finds himself in agreement with Republicans who believe that the criminal justice system has grown too costly and houses too many people for too long. On a bipartisan vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee in October advanced legislation to reduce mandatory sentences for nonviolent crimes, target select offenders for early release and do more to help them transition back to society. The House is working on its own version.
In issuing the commutations, Mr. Obama sent letters to each of the prisoners, most of whom will be released in April, signing them one by one in the Oval Office on Thursday. “I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around,” he wrote. “Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity.”
Michael D. Shear and Gardiner Harris contributed reporting.