U.S. Weighs Clemency For Federal Prisoners

Posted: May 4, 2014 in News and politics

WASHINGTON | The Obama administration is encouraging many nonviolent federal prisoners to apply for early release — and expecting thousands to take up the offer. It’s an effort to deal with high costs and overcrowding in prisons, and also 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.

Though the criteria apply solely to federal inmates, states, too are grappling with severe prison overcrowding. 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 rising multibillion-dollar expenses that officials say threaten other law enforcement priorities and that an inspector general’s report last year characterized as a “growing crisis.” The United States incarcerates about a quarter of the world’s prisoners. Of the roughly 216,000 inmates in federal custody, nearly half are imprisoned for drug-related crimes.

The Bureau of Prisons will notify all inmates of the criteria next week and provide electronic surveys to those who think they deserve clemency.

The Justice Department expects the vast majority of applicants to be drug prisoners but didn’t foreclose the possibility that inmates convicted of other crimes — financial fraud, for example — could be considered.

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