Washington • The Justice Department will begin considering clemency applications from nonviolent federal inmates who have behaved in prison, have no significant criminal history and have already served more than 10 years behind bars, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The initiative is part of a broader Obama administration effort to trim the nation’s prison population and ease sentencing disparities arising from drug possession crimes. The goal of the new criteria, which were to be detailed Wednesday, is to create a broader pool of eligible prisoners the Justice Department can recommend to the president to consider for shorter sentences.
The department Wednesday was to lay out a half-dozen criteria that it will consider in evaluating future clemency applications from inmates, said the person, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because a formal announcement had not yet been made. Deputy Attorney General James Cole was expected to discuss the clemency changes at a news conference.
The announcement is aimed primarily at drug prisoners, especially those sentenced under old guidelines that resulted in significantly harsher penalties for people caught with crack cocaine than for those who possessed the powder form of the drug. But it also applies to federal inmates imprisoned for other crimes, provided they meet the same criteria for clemency.
To be eligible for consideration, inmates must be deemed nonviolent, low-level offenders with no gang ties, and must have spent at least 10 years behind bars and received a harsher punishment at the time of sentencing than they would have gotten for the same crime today, according to the person.
The person said the Justice Department has identified more than 23,000 people who are serving sentences of at least 10 years. But it was not clear how many of those people would be viable clemency candidates.
The Obama administration says it’s working to correct the legacy of an old sentencing structure that, historically, subjected black convicts to long prison terms for crack cocaine convictions while giving far more lenient sentences to those caught with powder, who were more likely to be white. The Fair Sentencing Act reduced that disparity and eliminated a five-year mandatory minimum for first-time possession of crack, and officials are now turning their attention to identifying inmates who received sentences under the old guidelines that now appear unduly harsh.
President Barack Obama, who granted only one commutation in his first term, cut short in December the sentences of eight prisoners he said had been locked up too long for drug crimes. The White House has said it’s seeking additional good candidates to consider for clemency, though spokesman Jay Carney said Monday that the number of commutations "will depend entirely on the number of worthy candidates."
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