WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is encouraging many nonviolent federal prisoners to apply for early release and expects thousands to take up the offer. It’s an effort to deal with high costs and overcrowding in prisons, and a matter of fairness, the government says.
On Wednesday, the Justice Department unveiled a revamped clemency process directed primarily at low-level felons imprisoned for at least 10 years who have clean records while in custody.
The effort is part of a broader administration push to scale back harsh penalties in some drug-related prosecutions and to address sentencing disparities arising from the 1980s crack cocaine epidemic that yielded disproportionately tough punishment for black drug offenders.
“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,” said Deputy Attorney General James Cole in laying out new criteria that will be used in evaluating clemency petitions for possible recommendation for the president’s approval.
The criteria apply solely to federal inmates, but states are also grappling with severe prison overcrowding.
In Nebraska, for example, prisons were at 155 percent of capacity at the end of March. In California, courts have ordered the state to reduce the inmate population to 137.5 percent of designed capacity, or 112,164 inmates in the 34 facilities, by February 2016.
The White House, sometimes criticized as too stingy with its clemency power, says it’s seeking more candidates for leniency in an overcrowded federal prison system whose costs comprise a sizable percentage of the Justice Department’s budget.
The system’s population has rocketed in recent decades, creating multibillion-dollar expenses that officials say threaten other law enforcement priorities.
Of the roughly 216,000 inmates in federal custody, nearly half are imprisoned for drug-related crimes.
“These defendants were properly held accountable for their criminal conduct,” Cole said. “Some of them, simply because of the operation of sentencing laws on the books at the time, received substantial sentences that are disproportionate to what they would receive today.”
Officials say they don’t know how many of the tens of thousands of drug-related convicts would be eligible for early release, but ideal candidates would: have no history of violence or ties to criminal organizations or gangs; have a clean prison record; have already served 10 years or more of their sentence; and, if convicted of the same offense today, be likely to receive a substantially shorter sentence.