With the swelling overpopulation of the United States prison system, it has seemingly become apparent to the executive branch of government that action is imperative. Led by President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, new reforms will soon be put into place that will allow greater opportunity for clemency among certain criminals, particularly those offenders involved in nonviolent drug cases. Upon a recent request from President Obama, the Justice Department, led by Holder, has decided to revise and expand criteria for prisoners who may be eligible for clemency, which would potentially push through thousands of applications in an expedited process.
The reforms are intended to commute sentences for low-level offenders, such as nonviolent, drug-related criminals. One reason for this may be the enormous financial burden it places on taxpayers and the government. It has been reported that the Justice Department spends 30 percent of its budget on the prison system. Another reason to revamp clemency policies, which are set to be announced this week, could be an unfair social imbalance that previous guidelines encouraged. For example, the Fair Sentencing Act, which was signed by Obama in 2010, focused on the fact that 100 grams of powder cocaine was considered, under law, equivalent to one gram of crack cocaine. This notion led to a much larger contingency of African American offenders than Caucasian offenders, because crack cocaine was found to be predominant in lower class African-American communities, while powder cocaine existed primarily in Caucasian, upper class neighborhoods. According to Holder, there are, “… too many people in federal prison who were sentenced under the old regime — and who, as a result, will have to spend far more time in prison than they would if sentenced today for exactly the same crime.”
The expectation from Holder is that thousands of applications, many for nonviolent drug offenders, will be brought forth as soon as the new clemency guidelines take effect. There will also be a need to employ dozens of attorneys to help with handling the slew of potential candidates for presidential pardoning and commutation. Since Obama has taken office he has only granted 52 out of 1,600 requests for pardoning and nine out of 10,000 requests for commutation. As a way of speeding the process and making it more efficient, the Department of Justice is calling on lawyers and interests groups to assist them in recognizing nonviolent offenders being forced to serve out extremely long prison terms.
According t0 Anthony Papa of the Drug Policy Alliance, a proponent of the clemency reforms, there are a million nonviolent drug offenders behind bars, many of whom deserve “a second chance.” Moreover, the American Civil Liberties Union claims that 3,278 U.S. inmates are serving life sentences for nonviolent drug and property crimes. Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who has been charged with releasing the new clemency policies this week, has already contacted state bar associations for legal assistance and encouraged the Bureau of Prisons to facilitate the inmate application process.
One final reason for the new reforms, according to Holder, may just be to give many individuals, who have paid a societal debt, an opportunity to rehabilitate themselves and become “productive citizens.” He seems to feel that too many inmates are serving unnecessarily long sentences and that “is simply not right.” The new clemency policies, which are sure to affect many of those convicted of nonviolent drug offenses, come swiftly. It was only last week that the White House requested that the Department of Justice overhaul the existing criteria for commutable and potentially pardonable crimes.
By Josh Taub