The Obama administration announced Thursday a new clemency effort that encourages defense lawyers to refer to the Department of Justice low-level, nonviolent drug offenders for early release from federal prisons.
Speaking before the New York State Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole unveiled the plan that seeks to determine possible clemency for inmates whose long-term incarceration “harms our criminal justice system.”
“You each can play a critical role in this process by providing a qualified petitioner - one who has a clean record in prison, does not present a threat to public safety, and who is facing a life or near-life sentence that is excessive under current law - with the opportunity to get a fresh start,” Cole said.
In addition, the US Bureau of Prisons will begin informing such low-level, nonviolent drug offenders of the opportunity to apply for early release, Cole said.
The announcement follows other initiatives and statements regarding prison reform made recently by top officials. Attorney General Eric Holder said in August that the same type of low-level drug offenders, with no ties to gangs or major drug trafficking organizations, would no longer be charged with certain offenses that instituted harsh mandatory sentences.
President Obama followed Holder in December with the commutation of sentences of eight inmates serving extensive terms in prison for crack cocaine convictions. All of the eight - recommended by the Justice Department - had served at least 15 years in jail and had been convicted before the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which was passed in effort to close large sentencing disparities between those convicted for crack and those for powder cocaine crimes.
Obama said at the time those eight inmates would have received shorter sentences had the law existed when they were convicted, adding some would have already served their time by then.
Cole said the Justice Department would like to send more of those kind of cases to the White House.
“The president’s grant of commutations for these eight individuals is only a first step,” he said. “There are more low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who remain in prison, and who would likely have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of precisely the same offenses today.”
Cole did not specify how many candidates the White House will consider in the clemency program, though there are currently thousands of inmates serving time in federal prison for just crack cocaine crimes.
The Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney is in charge of advising the White House on the merits of specific cases.
Cost savings is a residual benefit of the commutations for such low-level offenders. Holder, testifying before a Senate committee Wednesday, said federal prison costs make up one-third of the Justice Department budget, amounting to “a growing and potentially very dangerous problem.”
The total cost for incarcerating federal prisoners in 2010 came to US$80 billion. The federal prison population has shot up by 800 percent since 1980, and prisons are operating at 40 percent over capacity, according to the Justice Department.
On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee also advanced the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would reform mandatory minimum statutes. The new bill would shorten sentences and give judges more leeway to use their own discretion during sentencing. In addition, the legislation would allow inmates to return to court to seek sentences pursuant to the Fair Sentencing Act.