President Obama commutes New Orleans man's 20-year sentence for Uptown drug dealing _lowres

President Barack Obama meets with people who were formerly incarcerated and have previously received commutations, including Phillip Emmert, right, Wednesday, March 30, 2016, at Busboys and Poets restaurant in northwest Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

President Barack Obama on Wednesday commuted the sentences of 61 federal prisoners, including a New Orleans man serving two decades behind bars for dealing crack cocaine. The White House said the prisoners had been serving lengthy terms for drug-related convictions under “outdated and unduly harsh sentencing laws.”

Kevin County, one of three Louisiana men to receive the president’s leniency, had been scheduled for release in January 2020, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons. He now will be released July 28.

The executive action brought to 248 the number of sentences Obama has commuted since taking office, part of his push to reform the criminal justice system, particularly the way it treats nonviolent offenders.

In a letter to the selected prisoners, Obama said the power to commute sentences “embodies the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance after having made a mistake in their lives that led to a conviction under our laws.”

In late 2001, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration raided County’s apartment on South Saratoga Street and found 170 grams of crack, 74 grams of powder cocaine and various drug paraphernalia. The DEA said it had learned through a confidential informant that County had been dealing crack cocaine throughout Uptown New Orleans.

Agents monitored a wiretap for several months and made a series of undercover drug buys from County, according to court documents.

County, 43, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to drug conspiracy charges that carried a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years. He contended in fruitless appeals that he believed he actually faced a maximum of 10 years when he pleaded guilty.

While they have become more frequent under the Obama administration, commutations remain exceedingly rare. According to the White House, the president “cautioned those receiving clemency that what they do with this unexpected opportunity reflects not only on each individual person, but also on all those still behind bars who are seeking that same shot at a new life.”

County’s prospects for early release had appeared increasingly bleak. As recently as November, a federal judge in New Orleans denied his request for a sentence reduction based on recent changes in federal sentencing guidelines. U.S. District Judge Mary Ann Vial Lemmon ruled that County was ineligible to have his sentence shortened under federal laws that remained unchanged even after the amendments to those guidelines became retroactive.

County, who is in a prison in Yazoo City, Mississippi, invoked Obama in court filings last year, citing remarks the president made about an “unfair system” that has led to inordinately long prison terms for nonviolent drug offenders.

The other Louisiana men receiving commutations were John E. Milton III, of Baton Rouge, and Roy Lee Debose, of Shreveport.

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.