Obama Corrects The Typo That Lengthened An Inmate's Prison Sentence By Four Years

On Tuesday, President Obama commuted the sentence of an inmate who, thanks to a typo, was sent to prison for almost four years longer than his original sentence called for. Convicted drug dealer Caesar Cantu will now serve 11.5 years in prison, rather than the 15 he was erroneously given due to a clerical error. It’s only the 10th time Obama has used his commutation powers.

So how, exactly, did a typo result in almost four years of extra prison time? Well, the answer lies in the federal sentencing guidelines used to determine prison terms.

People convicted of felonies and Class A misdemeanors in federal court are assigned a number, called a “base offense level,” that determines their prison sentence. A defendant’s base offense level is determined through a calculation that takes into consideration the severity of their crime and their criminal history. Cantu was convicted in 2006 of marijuana trafficking and money laundering, and assigned a base offense level of 34.

However, somebody at the court made a typo while preparing his pre-sentencing report (oops). One section of that report listed his correct base level offense, but the part of the report that recommends prison sentences erroneously listed his level as 36. That’s only two points higher than his correct offense level, but those two points were enough to give Cantu three and a half extra years in prison.

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Cantu noticed the error six years after his conviction, and requested that his sentence be shortened to the correct amount. However, in a twist, the judge denied that request on the grounds that the statute of limitations had run out.

The White House announced today that Obama would use his presidential clemency powers to unilaterally shorten Cantu’s prison term.

"Given the circumstances of this case and the manifest injustice of keeping a person in federal prison for an extra three and a half years because of a typographical mistake, the president wanted to act as quickly as possible," White House press secretary Jay Carney said. "This is a matter of basic fairness and it reflects the important role of clemency as a fail-safe in our judicial system."

While presidential clemency is rare, this isn’t the first time Obama has used it to lessen the sentence of a drug offender. In December, Obama commuted the sentences of eight federal inmates who, thanks to the crack cocaine sentencing disparity, were serving outsized prison sentences. That disparity was reduced in 2011; Obama argued that, had those eight offenders been convicted under the new rules, they would have already been out of prison. So, he released them from prison.