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Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole announced the new standards that will be considered in deciding whether to recommend clemency for inmates who received long sentences for drug crimes.

Susan Walsh • Associated Press,

Justice Department is looking for nonviolent felons for early release

  • Article by: MATT APUZZO New York Times
  • April 23, 2014 - 8:28 PM

– The Justice Department on Wednesday announced a plan to canvass the entire federal prison population for the first time to find inmates who committed low-level crimes and could be released early.

The move, which expands a plan announced in January, is expected to generate thousands, if not tens of thousands of applications for clemency. It represents the Obama administration’s latest break from the criminal justice ­policies created to fight drugs.

Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole said Wednesday that the department would consider recommending clemency for nonviolent felons who have served at least 10 years in prison and who would have received a significantly lower prison term if convicted under today’s more lenient sentencing laws.

“These 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.

The Justice Department could not say how many inmates fit its criteria. But considering the standards and the lengthy clemency review process, civil rights advocates said it was far more likely that the number released early would be in the hundreds rather than the thousands.

Not a sizable dent

The policy change is unlikely to make a sizable dent in the federal prison population of about 216,000 people. But it represents the most significant clemency effort since Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter offered amnesty to Vietnam War draft evaders.

And like those efforts, the plan announced Wednesday would be a symbolic break from the past. It would have been politically unthinkable for the Justice Department to talk about letting inmates ­convicted of drug crimes out of prison early during the crack cocaine and violent crime epidemic of the 1980s and early 1990s.

“This is more a demonstration of where the administration is trying to take the federal criminal justice system,” said Vanita Gupta, the deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Criminal justice policies have created large prison populations that are expensive to house and feed. Since the late 1970s, the nation’s prison population has ballooned into the world’s largest. About 1 in every 100 adults is locked up.

With crime rates at historic lows, Attorney General Eric Holder has urged that the sentencing system be overhauled, portraying it as a civil rights issue. He has built an unusual coalition of liberal Democrats and libertarian-minded Republicans in Congress who want to make the nation’s sentencing laws more lenient.

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