DOJ Announces Sentence Commutations for Non-Violent Drug Offenders

The Fair Sentencing Act was signed in 2010 in an effort to at least lessen the disparate racial effects of crack-cocaine laws. Many men who had been sentenced before the signing of the law were languishing behind bars, some for decades, for non-violent crack offenses. In December, Obama commuted eight of these sentences, freeing the federal inmates. Now, the Department of Justice is looking for more candidates.

The Obama Administration sent out the call last week—looking for more inmates who may be serving lengthy sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. The move is an unprecedented attempt to whittle away at the racial imbalance within the federal prison system.

“There are more low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who remain in prison, and who would likely have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of precisely the same offenses today,” said Deputy Attorney General James Cole. “This is not fair, and it harms our criminal justice system.”

Prisoners in Tracy, Calif. (RICH PEDRONCELLI/AP)

Prisoners in Tracy, Calif. (RICH PEDRONCELLI/AP)

Cole alerted defense lawyers in New York to start combing their client lists for potential clemency beneficiaries.

While anyone can apply for clemency, the White House has made it clear they are looking for inmates under a very specific set of circumstances—those who are serving lengthy sentences for non-violent, low-level drug offenses. In particular, they’d like to see applicants who were sentenced under previous crack cocaine laws.

Before 2010, the sentence for a single gram of crack cocaine was equal to the sentence for 100 grams of powder cocaine. Though supporters of this old law say crack was far more dangerous than powder cocaine, others say both the justification for this disparity and the effects of it were racist.

The Fair Sentencing Act wasn’t completely “fair”, but did reduce that disparity from 100:1 to 18:1. Because the vast majority of crack-cocaine defendants were black and powder cocaine defendants were white, it was hoped the change would at least slightly move the scales towards more equal justice.

The eight men who received pardons in December had all been sentenced to more than 15 years for crack offenses. Had they been sentenced after 2010, they would had already satisfied their term. This, no doubt, was what allowed them to be first in the long line of clemency applicants.

As the Wall Street Journal reports:

The new Justice Department initiative suggests the president could end up granting clemency to a much larger group of offenders than he did in December. Mr. Cole said the department is looking for “nonviolent, low-level drug offenders who weren’t leaders of—nor had any significant ties to—large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels.” He said first-time offenders and those without long rap sheets also would be considered.

Right now, we don’t know how many people the DOJ will recommend to the president for clemency. If the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 were made retroactive to cases as early as October 1991, more than 12,000 inmates would be eligible for shorter sentences, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Though it’s unlikely this many inmates would be pardoned, it does give us a picture of just how big of an impact the previously disparate crack law was.

The 2014 budget for the Federal Bureau of Prisons (pdf) is nearly $7 billion. Much of these costs and the untold costs on communities across the nation could be slashed if the justice system were focused on humane and effective penalties for violations of worthwhile laws.

There is still much more that can be done. With the strong trend in marijuana reform nationwide, we’d like to see all small-time, non-violent marijuana offenders freed. And the rate of the Obama administration’s pardons, commutations, and clemency has been abysmally low.

But this announcement by the DOJ could be a step in the right direction.


About Elizabeth

Elizabeth Renter is a freelance writer and editor who writes about criminal justice issues.

Follow me on Google+