The Department of Justice is instructing lawyers to seek out and advise low-level drug offenders serving extensive prison sentences so that they ask for clemency, in an attempt to retroactively correct a criminal justice system that unfairly targeted black Americans.
In 2010, President Barack Obama signed a bill reducing the disparity in mandatory sentences for crack and powder cocaine. The effort was designed to correct the inequality that arose in U.S. prisons due to laws that doled out much longer terms to crack users, who also are more likely to be black. The bill, however, did not retroactively shorten terms for crack-related sentences.
Last year, Obama granted clemency to eight crack cocaine offenders who deemed to have been given excessive sentences. Deputy Attorney General James Cole told the New York State Bar Association that now, the department is looking to grant clemency to "additional candidates, who are similarly situated." In order to qualify, prisoners must be non-violent, non-threatening to public safety, are not linked to gangs or cartels, have upheld clean records while in jail, and are serving outsized sentences.
Cole hopes a reduced prison population will free up funds for other, more productive ways to battle crime, per Reuters:
Cole said funds spent on prisons - $6.5 billion last year - could be better spent fighting financial fraud, drug cartels, public corruption and other serious crimes. The federal prison population has increased by 800 percent in the last 30 years, to nearly 216,000 inmates, he said. "If we don't find a solution to the federal prison population problem, public safety is going to suffer," Cole said.
The effort to reduce sentences comes shortly after Obama's State of the Union Address, during which the president said he will make use of his executive privilege to push through reform.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the Senate Judiciary Committee also just approved a bill that would make the 2010 sentencing reform law retroactive, potentially reducing the sentences of several thousand inmates. Under the new law, those serving crack sentences would be allowed to ask judges for early release. The bill would also reduce mandatory minimums and give judges more flexibility in issuing sentences. Per the Deseret News, the bill remains contentious:
Part of the compromise involved amendments that, paradoxically, would actually enhance mandatory minimums for sex offenses, domestic violence and terrorism. [Utah Senator Michael] Lee opposed those amendments, [his spokesman] said, because he felt the bill’s purpose was to reduce unduly severe sentences. But the toughening amendments did not go far enough for Lee’s Utah colleague, Sen. Orrin Hatch, who was one of the five to vote against the bill in committee.
The bill would be a much more efficient way (compared to clemency appeals) to reduce sentences retroactively, but activists are pleased to see Obama flexing his executive muscle.
Still, some argue that it is too early laud the government's effort to reduce sentencing. Andrew Cohen writes in The Daily Beast:
Once bar associations start bugging their lawyers to find new clemency applicants, once the Bureau of Prisons starts encouraging more petitions, those earnest (and in many cases legitimate) pleas for mercy are going to come flooding into the Justice Department. And unless the [Office of the Pardon Attorney] has the additional resources necessary to handle the crush, and unless OPA guidelines are less restrictive than they have been in the recent past, the result is going to be a bottleneck of historic proportions.
Even if the effort falls short, we still think it's a good place to start.