US to consider clemency requests from thousands of prisoners
April 22, 2014
Washington: The Obama administration is beginning an aggressive new effort to foster equity in criminal sentencing by considering clemency requests from as many as thousands of federal inmates serving time for drug offences, officials said.
The initiative, which amounts to an unprecedented campaign to free non-violent offenders, will begin immediately and continue over the next two years, officials said on Monday. The Justice Department said it expects to reassign dozens of lawyers to its understaffed pardons office to handle the requests from inmates.
''The White House has indicated it wants to consider additional clemency applications, to restore a degree of justice, fairness and proportionality for deserving individuals who do not pose a threat to public safety,'' Attorney General Eric Holder said on Monday. ''The Justice Department is committed to recommending as many qualified applicants as possible for reduced sentences.''
Mr Holder announced a series of initiatives to tackle disparities in criminal penalties, beginning in August, when he said that low-level, non-violent drug offenders with no connection to gangs or large-scale drug organisations would not be charged with offences that call for severe mandatory sentences. He has travelled across the country to highlight community programs in which non-violent offenders have received substance-abuse treatment and other assistance instead of long prison sentences.
Underlying the initiatives is the belief by top Justice Department officials that the most severe penalties should be reserved for serious, high-level or violent drug traffickers. On April 10, after an endorsement from Mr Holder, the US Sentencing Commission – the independent agency that sets sentencing policies for federal judges – voted to revise its guidelines to reduce sentences for defendants in most of the nation's drug cases.
In the meantime, however, thousands of inmates are still serving federally mandated sentences that imposed strict penalties for the possession of crack cocaine. The Fair Sentencing Act, which President Barack Obama signed in 2010, reduced the disparity between convictions for crack and powder cocaine, and Mr Obama has called sentences passed under the older guidelines ''unduly harsh''. The law also eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for the simple possession of crack cocaine.
''There are still too many people in federal prison who were sentenced under the old regime – and who, as a result, will have to spend far more time in prison than they would if sentenced today for exactly the same crime,'' Mr Holder said. ''This is simply not right.''
For about two decades, severe sentences were imposed on offenders convicted of trafficking or possession with intent to traffic crack cocaine in the belief that the substance was more addictive than powder cocaine, inexpensive and linked to violent crime. But in 2002, the sentencing panel found that sentencing guidelines were based on misperceptions about the relative dangers of crack cocaine compared with other drugs. The commission also found that the disparity had created a racial imbalance in which harsh sentences had been disproportionately imposed on minorities, particularly African-Americans.
In December, Mr Obama commuted the sentences of eight inmates serving long prison terms for crack-cocaine convictions handed down before the 2010 law was passed. Six of the eight were serving life sentences, including two who had not previously been convicted. Each of the eight had served more than 15 years for a crack-cocaine offence.