The U.S. Department of Justice has released new criteria for clemency petitions, the latest move by the federal government in its effort to tighten spending on prisons.
The initiative will give priority to petitions from nonviolent prisoners who likely would have received lighter punishments if they had been sentenced under current federal law. To be eligible, inmates must have no ties to large-scale criminal enterprises, must have served at least 10 years of their sentence, must have no significant criminal history and must have demonstrated good conduct while serving their sentences.
Thousands of federal inmates are expected to be eligible for clemency under the new guidelines, according to a Reuters report. Deputy Attorney General James Cole said defendants sentenced before the passage of a 2010 law that eased penalties for possession of crack cocaine are among the most obvious cases for review, the news agency reported.
“Older, stringent punishments that are out of line with sentences imposed under today’s laws erode people’s confidence in our criminal justice system,” Cole said in a Justice Department press release announcing the new guidelines.
As of September 2014, roughly 49% of the 214,000 inmates held in federal prisons were serving sentences for drug-related crimes, according to the Bureau of Prisons.
The expected deluge of petitions spurred the Justice Department to issue a department-wide call for attorneys willing to help in the review process. Interested inmates will be given an electronic survey to help lawyers quickly identify prisoners who might meet the new standards.
The new clemency guidelines are part of Attorney General Eric Holder’s “Smart on Crime” initiative. The plan, announced in 2013, calls for review of the criminal justice system to help increase efficiency and reduce costs.
Federal law allows the president to pardon or reduce the sentence of any inmate serving time for a federal crime. Requests for clemency go to the Office of the Pardon Attorney, where they are reviewed and investigated. Petitions are then sent to the deputy attorney general for review and possible recommendation to the president.
In late 2013, President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of eight federal prisoners serving time for drug crimes. Six of the inmates had been sentenced to life in prison. Federal law enforcement officials said many of the defendants already would have been released if they had been sentenced under laws now in effect.
“For our criminal justice system to be effective, it needs to not only be fair; but it also must be perceived as being fair,” Cole said in April.