Prisoners now serving life or near-life prison sentences that, under the current law, are considered excessive may be eligible to apply for them to be commuted. On Thursday, in remarks prepared for a speech to the New York State Bar Association, Attorney General James Cole requested that the Federal Bureau of Prisons make inmates aware of this new opportunity to apply for clemency. And Cole also asked state bar associations to help locate qualified petitioners and provide them with the paperwork that will required to review their cases.
In remarks prepared for his speech to the NY State Bar Association, Cole pointed out that the prisoners targeted for clemency will be those who would have received a substantially lower sentence were they convicted of those same offenses today. Cole called this unfair and harmful to our criminal justice system. In addition, these offenders cannot present a threat to public safety and must have a clean prison record.
Cole’s remarks are part of a broader attempt by the Justice Department to revamp parts of the federal criminal justice system. On Wednesday, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. testified on Capitol Hill that the Justice Department’s ability to perform certain law enforcement missions is strained by the fact that up to 30 percent of the department’s budget goes to funding the overcrowded federal prison system.
Prison reform has also been active in areas such as racial inequity. In 2010, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act to rectify sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine offenders. Offenses that involved crack cocaine, a drug used disproportionately in African American communities during the crack epidemic of the 80s, carried harsher penalties than those involving the powder form cocaine said to be used more often by Caucasians. Crack crimes, in some cases, were given sentences that were 100 times greater than those of powder cocaine and caused prison populations in the U.S. to explode by 800 percent.
In August of 2013, the Department of Justice changed the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines in order to allow judges some discretion on whether or not defendants should serve the minimum sentence. One month later, in September of 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder stated that the mandatory sentencing guideline reforms would be applicable to cases in which charges had already been filed and that those changes were effective immediately. Holder stated that the measure was part of the department’s plan to quit imposing “draconian mandatory minimum sentences” for low-level drug offenders with no association to gangs or drug cartels.
On Jan 23, 2014, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. encouraged congress to pass the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act that would allow judges to have more discretion determining sentences for offenders convicted of certain federal drug crimes. The Department of Justice states that the legislation could both keep the country safe and save it billions of dollars in prison costs.
The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, however, only addressed new cases. In December of 2013, President Obama started the ball rolling in reviewing past cases by commuting the sentences of eight federal inmates convicted of crack cocaine offenses under the old rules. Cole noted that these eight commutations are a only a first step.
By Donna Westlund