The Justice Department is broadening the criteria it will use in evaluating clemency petitions from certain federal prisoners and expects the changes to result in thousands of new applications, Attorney General Eric Holder said Monday.
The new criteria, which will be detailed later this week and are aimed at inmates serving time for nonviolent drug offenses, are intended to lead to a reduction in the nation's federal prison population and also "ensure that those who have paid their debts have a chance to become productive citizens," Holder said in a video message.
The announcement is part of an ongoing Obama administration push to re-evaluate sentences for drug crimes that officials believe were unduly harsh and were imposed under old federal guidelines that treated convictions for crack cocaine offenses more punitively than those involving the powder form of the drug.
In December, for instance, President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of eight drug prisoners — including six who were serving life sentences — and the Justice Department in January publicly encouraged defense lawyers from around the country to help low-level, nonviolent drug offenders prepare petitions for clemency.
The Justice Department evaluates clemency applications for the president's review, taking into account factors such as the seriousness of the crime, the person's acceptance of responsibility and behavior since the conviction and any input from the prosecutors who handled the case. Historically, the overwhelming majority of requests for pardons and sentence commutations are not granted, a trend that has continued in the Obama administration.
But with the use of new criteria in deciding when to recommend a clemency petition to the president, the Justice Department expects to receive thousands of new applications and may assign dozens of lawyers to handle those applications, Holder said.
"The White House has indicated it wants to consider additional clemency applications, to restore a degree of justice, fairness, and proportionality for deserving individuals who do not pose a threat to public safety. The Justice Department is committed to recommending as many qualified applicants as possible for reduced sentences," Holder said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday that the number of commutations granted depend on the number of worthy candidates.
"And in terms of how many deserving candidates are out there, I couldn't begin to speculate," he said.
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said he was heartened by the push to increase the number of clemency applications after years of what he described as relative inactivity on that front.
"What you see is some focused attention on the part of the administration to deal with this in a serious way," he said.