As anticipated, the Department of Justice on Wednesday unveiled a process for granting clemency to federal inmates convicted under harsh mandatory sentencing guidelines. It could mean a lot of prisoners are set free. It also could not.

The Justice Department, which has been reviewing mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for months, outlined a six-criteria process under which prisoners could be considered for clemency. The prisoners must:

  • Be federal inmates who would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense today,
  • Be non-violent offenders without ties to criminal organizations or gangs,
  • Have served at least 10 years of their prison sentence,
  • Have no significant criminal history,
  • Have demonstrated good conduct in prison, and
  • Have no history of violence prior to prison.

The goal of the initiative is fairly simple. Following decades of stricter and stricter sentencing standards that disproportionately affected people of color, President Obama has focused on scaling those sentences back both for future convicts and for those already in prison. In December, Obama commuted the sentences of eight drug offenders who'd been given sentences with mandatory minimum sentences that Obama felt were excessive. Three, for example, were given life without parole bids for first-time drug offenses.

Once a prisoner meets the criteria above, it is not as though his or her cell is automatically unlocked. Their cases will then be considered by the administration for a clemency appeal, which might or might not be granted. There's a fair amount of subjectivity built into the guidelines, which of course themselves constrain the number of people who would be eligible.

"[T]he odds are long for any prisoner," Matthew Larotonda writes at Yahoo News about the plan. Still, he indicates that the number receiving clemency could be in the thousands. When the plan first became public, an administration official put it in the "hundreds to thousands" range.

There were 196,574 prisoners in federal institutions serving sentences of a year or longer at the end of 2012, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That's a massive pool of possible applicants, most of whom will be trying to shoehorn their situations into those six points. It's not at all clear how many will be able to do so immediately, or over the long term.

There's not really a better way to do it, though. At the end of the day, it will be up to Obama — who has issued pardons at an historically low rate — to decide whether or not any given case deserves special treatment. We will see how many that totals.