Administration Opens Clemency Door for Thousands of Low-level Drug Offenders

McClatchy Washington BureauApril 23, 2014 

— In a dramatic move aimed at restoring equal justice, the administration announced on April 23rd an initiative under which President Barack Obama could grant clemency to hundreds, even thousands of drug abusers and other nonviolent federal prisoners who’ve served 10 years or more.

Deputy Attorney General James Cole told a news conference that about 12 or 13 percent of the 219,000 inmates in the nation’s overcrowded federal prisons might be considered for clemency. The Justice Department is marshaling resources to help them easily apply and to quickly review their applications, he said.

Under Attorney General Eric Holder, the department has taken numerous steps to ease prosecution of low-level drug offenders and limit their punishment. But while mandatory sentences for many drug offenses were reduced in 2010 under the Fair Sentencing Act, Congress has taken no action to lighten sentences for thousands of prisoners already serving time for the same crimes, including some inmates facing life sentences.

“The fundamental American concept, equal justice under law, requires that our laws be enforced fairly, and not just going forward,” Cole said. “It is equally important that we extend this fairness to those who are already serving prison sentences for their crimes.”

The new policy commits Obama to using his executive powers to undo the effects of a wave of harsh criminal penalties enacted in the 1980s and 1990s, when politicians seemed in a race to demonstrate how tough they were on crime.

Cole said the program will aim to “quickly and effectively identify appropriate candidates … who have a clean prison record, do not present a threat to public safety and were sentenced under out of date laws that have since been changed and are no longer seen as appropriate.”

Besides drug offenders, he said, they may include inmates tagged as “career criminals” because they had prior arrests for minor drug cases that were branded as felonies.

In addition to limiting eligibility to those who have served time for at least a decade, the program also limits requires inmates to meet multiple other criteria, including that they:

--Likely would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense today.

--Are non-violent, low-level offenders without “significant” ties to large-scale criminal organizations and with no history of violence while imprisoned.

--Don’t have a significant criminal history.

--Have records of good conduct while in prison.

In December, Obama presaged the broader program by commuting the sentences of eight men and women who had each had served more than 15 years in prison for crack cocaine offenses. It was the first offense for two of those inmates, but they and four others had received life sentences.

Next week, the Bureau of Prisons will notify federal inmates of the new initiative and of the criteria for becoming a clemency candidate. Inmates who believe they’re eligible will be asked to fill out an electronic survey for use by department officials to screen their qualifications.

Each inmate who meets that threshold will be offered free legal counsel, provided by private criminal defense attorneys and nonprofit lawyers who have volunteered to aid in the effort, dubbing themselves “Clemency Project 2014.”

The department also is detailing more lawyers to the department’s office of the pardon attorney, which reviews all applications for presidential pardons or executive clemency, even taking the extraordinary step of asking attorneys from the federal public defender’s office to join in the process.

Federal prosecutors and trial judges will be consulted before any recommendations for clemency are forwarded to the White House, Cole said.

Coinciding with the announcement, the department said its pardon attorney, Ron Rodgers, had requested reassignment and would be succeeded by Deborah Leff after being admonished by the agency’s inspector general for mishandling information pertaining to clemency petitions. Leff has worked most recently as acting senior counselor for Access to Justice, in which her mission was to help ensure that the justice system delivers outcomes “that are fair and accessible to all,” Cole said.

Email: ggordon@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @greggordon2.

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