The Obama administration has unveiled its plan to grant early release to federal prisoners sentenced under harsh drug laws. The Justice Department will widen the criteria for clemency to consider nonviolent felons who have served at least 10 years behind bars and who would have received shorter terms had they not been sentenced under old laws. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced sentencing disparities between users of crack cocaine and powdered cocaine to address a racial imbalance in prison terms. But the law did not apply retroactively. Deputy Attorney General James Cole said the new policy is a matter of basic fairness.
James Cole: “These defendants were properly held accountable for their criminal conduct. However, some of them, simply because the operation of sentencing laws on the books at the time, received substantial sentences that are disproportionate to what they would have received today. … Correcting these sentences is simply a matter of fairness that is fundamental to our principles at the department, and it’s a commitment that all Department of Justice employees stand behind.”
The move marks the most substantial clemency effort since President Jimmy Carter offered a reprieve to those who avoided the Vietnam War draft. But while tens of thousands of prisoners may be eligible for the new clemency guidelines, experts warn a lengthy review process and other restrictions could lead to just hundreds being released. Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, called the shift a small step forward, saying: “We’ve had a significant rhetorical shift in the war on drugs, but we’ve had a moderate policy shift.” Both President Obama and drug reform advocates are now calling on Congress to take additional action with major sentencing reforms.
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