On Last Week Tonight, John Oliver drew attention to the fact that U.S. President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 46 non-violent drug offenders, a move that John Oliver considers “the criminal justice version of Top Chef: Last Chance Kitchen” without the risk of “disappointing Padma with your risotto.”
The prisoners were all incarcerated under mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which require typically harsh sentences regardless of the context of each crime. Oliver believes that these laws are remnants of the war on drugs put in place by the Bush and Reagan administrations and, according to Oliver, they are responsible for the explosion in the U.S. prison population with non-violent drug offenders stuck in prison for decades with no chance of parole.
As an example, Oliver showed a clip from the documentary The House I Live In, featuring a prisoner who was sentenced to life in prison without a chance of parole for carrying three ounces of methamphetamine. In Oliver’s terminology, they were treating the prisoner like “season five Walter White when he was barely season one Jesse Pinkman.” Another prisoner was a non-violent first-time offender who sold a small amount of marijuana to an undercover agent and was slapped with a 55-year sentence without parole for selling a drug which is now legal in four states and, according to Oliver, “has the side effect of making episodes of Frasier slightly funnier.”
Oliver believes that these mandatory minimum sentencing laws have done “way more harm than good,” especially because they tend to affect black and Hispanic populations the most. Additionally, many mandatory minimum sentences have been changed, but those changes have not been applied retroactively, something Oliver finds abhorrent.