The Justice Department is broadening the criteria it will use in evaluating clemency petitions from certain federal prisoners and expects the changes to result in thousands of new applications, Attorney General Eric Holder said Monday.
The new criteria, which will be detailed later this week and are aimed at inmates serving time for nonviolent drug offenses, are intended to lead to a reduction in the nation's federal prison population and also to "ensure that those who have paid their debts have a chance to become productive citizens," Holder said in a video message.
The announcement is part of an ongoing Obama administration push to re-evaluate sentences for drug crimes that officials believe were unduly harsh and were imposed under old federal guidelines that treated convictions for crack cocaine offenses more punitively than those involving the powder form of the drug.
In December, for instance, President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of eight drug prisoners — including six who were serving life sentences — sentenced under old federal guidelines and the Justice Department in January publicly encouraged defense lawyers from around the country to help low-level, nonviolent drug offenders prepare petitions for clemency.
The Justice Department evaluates and recommends clemency applications for the president's review, taking into account factors such as the seriousness of the crime, the person's acceptance of responsibility and behavior since the conviction and input from the prosecuting office that handled the case.
Historically, the overwhelming majority of requests for pardons and sentence commutations are not granted. The trend has continued in the Obama administration — Obama commuted only one sentence in his first term — causing groups that advocate for prisoners to criticize the president as being too stingy with his power.
But with the use of new criteria in deciding when to recommend a clemency petition to the president, the Justice Department expects to tap into a broader pool of convicts who may be good candidates to have their sentences cut short. Holder said the department was prepared to receive thousands of additional applications for clemency and may assign dozens of lawyers to review those applications.
"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. The Justice Department is committed to recommending as many qualified applicants as possible for reduced sentences," Holder said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday that the number of commutations granted will depend on the number of worthy candidates.
"And in terms of how many deserving candidates are out there, I couldn't begin to speculate," he said.
The announcement comes as Congress weighs significant changes in the country's criminal sentencing laws.
Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican and the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Monday that the Justice Department and Bureau of Prisons should consider easing prison overcrowding by transferring foreign inmates back to their home countries "instead of just talking about clemency for convicted drug offenders."
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said he was heartened by the push to increase the number of clemency applications after years of what he described as relative inactivity on that front.
"What you see is some focused attention on the part of the administration to deal with this in a serious way," he said.
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