New federal rules means more drug offenders eligible for clemency

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U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

WASHINGTON — More federal prisoners serving drug sentences can apply for clemency after the Justice Department announced new rules Wednesday.

Deputy Attorney General James Cole announced that the department would broaden the criteria for clemency, a move that is expected to lead to thousands of prisoners filing applications to President Barack Obama seeking to commute their sentences. The changes are part of a broader effort by the Obama administration to modify sentencing laws, allowing for use of rehabilitation and other alternatives to deal with non-violent drug offenders and those who previously faced tough mandatory minimum sentences.

The official announcement comes two days after Attorney General Eric Holder indicated that changes to clemency guidelines are likely.

“We are launching this clemency initiative in order to quickly and effectively identify appropriate candidates, candidates who have a clean prison record, do not present a threat to public safety, and were sentenced under out-of-date laws that have since been changed, and are no longer seen as appropriate,” Cole said in prepared remarks.

The clemency changes would be open to prisoners who have met a set of specific conditions: they must be low-level, non-violent offenders without a significant criminal history and must be serving a federal sentence that would likely be shorter if they were convicted today. They must have served at least 10 years of their sentence and have demonstrated good conduct in prison, with no history of violence before or during their prison term.

The pending changes are the latest step in an ongoing effort to remedy the once-common wide disparity in sentences handed down over powder versus crack cocaine, based on guidelines first enacted by Congress more than 25 years ago.

Of the more than 200,000 inmates in the federal prison system, some estimates show the new criteria could apply to about 2,000 prisoners. But the number is likely to fall to perhaps hundreds after government lawyers review the applications. The president has final authority to decide who gets clemency.

Obama has been criticized by some civil rights groups for being stingy with his pardons and commutations. But many praised the Justice Department’s decision as a good initial step, including a coalition of groups working on sentencing guidelines.

The announcement “marks the beginning of the end of the age of mass incarceration,” said Jerry Cox, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “We must seize this historic opportunity to start the process of remedying decades of cruel and unnecessarily harsh sentencing policies.”

Cole said the Justice Department will appoint a new pardon attorney after the current pardon attorney, Ron Rodgers, resigns. The department will boost the number of lawyers who review applications in anticipation of a flood of new requests.

“For our criminal justice system to be effective, it needs to not only be fair; but it also must be perceived as being fair,” Cole said in his prepared remarks. “Older, stringent punishments that are out of line with sentences imposed under today’s laws erode people’s confidence in our criminal justice system, and I am confident that this initiative will go far to promote the most fundamental of American ideals — equal justice under law.”

Three years ago, Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act to address the larger issue of drug sentencing disparities. Sentencing guidelines provided for a 100-to-1 ratio between the penalties for crack cocaine offenses versus those for powdered cocaine, but the fair sentencing law reduced the disparity to 18-to-1.

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