In a surprise move the Justice Department put into action a plan that will possibly grant clemency to low-level drug offenders in prison.
Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole has asked defense attorneys to search out cases of individuals that could qualify for early release. This new initiative is part of President Obama’s promise to address the disparity in sentencing during the crack cocaine epidemic that overtook the country. Because of mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, the prison system was flooded with black inmates. Under cocaine sentencing rules, a person who was caught with a small amount of crack cocaine would be sentenced to a longer term than a person who was caught with powder cocaine. In some cases the sentence difference was 100 to 1; crack is more popular than powder cocaine in black communities resulting in more black prisoners.
“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. This is not fair, and it harms our criminal justice system,” said Cole.
According to federal data 15 percent of the prison population, around 30,000 inmates, are in jail for crack-related offenses. Prosecuting and housing these inmates takes up 30 percent of the Justice Department budget for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Defense attorneys across the nation are being asked to seek a grant of clemency through the pardon unit of the Justice Department. Inmates can also petition for early release from judges if they were sentenced under the old mandatory minimum rules. The Justice Department already gets thousands of petitions every year for pardons and clemency. This new announcement is sure to strain the resources and add to the backlog of applications already received.