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.
Officials say they don’t know how many of the tens of thousands of drug-related convicts would be eligible for early release, but an ideal candidate would meet six criteria — including no history of violence, no ties to criminal organizations or gangs and a clean prison record. He must also have already served 10 years or more of his sentence and be likely to have received a substantially shorter offense if convicted of the same offense today.
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.
The action is the latest in a series of changes the administration has sought to the criminal justice system, particularly within the past year.
The Obama administration has said it is working to correct the legacy of an old sentencing structure that subjected offenders to long prison terms for crack cocaine convictions while giving far more lenient sentences to those caught with the powder form of the drug. Many of the crack convicts have been black, while those convicted of powder offenses have been more likely to be white.
The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced that disparity and eliminated a five-year mandatory minimum for first-time possession of crack, but the law did not cover offenders sentenced before the law was approved. Officials are now turning their attention to identifying inmates who received sentences under the old guidelines.