Obama Admin.'s Drug Clemency Drive: Who's Eligible?

By Brett Snider, Esq. on January 31, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Obama administration is looking for drug clemency candidates -- meaning some lucky prison inmates may be getting out early.

U.S. Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole announced at a New York State Bar Association event Thursday that the Justice Department wanted to send more names to the White House for clemency consideration, The New York Times reports. Cole even took the unusual step of asking criminal defense attorneys to help identify good candidates for clemency.

What is drug clemency? And who may be eligible?

Drug Clemency Offers Early Release

The concept of clemency is fairly simple: When a punishment is too harsh and is unfair, state and federal governments can reduce sentences or even pardon crimes to strike a fairer, balanced result.

The Times reports that the Obama administration is focusing on severe sentencing for federal crimes involving crack cocaine, which tend to disproportionately affect black communities. These mandatory sentencing minimums for crack offenses were reduced by Congress in 2010, but many crack offenders remain in prison as a result of the old sentencing guidelines.

President Obama has already commuted the sentences of eight federal inmates convicted of crack offenses, but the DOJ is on the lookout for more. Cole reiterated that many "low-level, nonviolent drug offenders" remain in prison who would have received much lighter sentences if convicted today, the Times reported.

Who Is Eligible for Clemency?

Whether it's drug clemency or clemency for death row inmates, clemency is typically reserved for those who have shown some degree of rehabilitation or contrition for their crimes.

In his speech to the New York State Bar Association, Cole was more specific, explaining that commuted sentences may be available for inmates who:

  • Have a "clean" prison record,
  • Are not a threat to public safety,
  • Have no significant ties to gangs or cartels, and
  • Were sentenced under outdated guidelines or laws.

Note that commuting (i.e., shortening) a sentence is not the same as a pardon. The federal government still wants to have low-level offenders serve their time, just not something close to a life sentence.

Cole said he hopes that rectifying these old sentences to reflect current attitudes on low-level drug offenses will avoid eroding confidence in the criminal justice system. In order to steer the federal justice system in the direction of fairness, Cole called for attorneys to assist prisoners in filing commutation petitions.

If you or someone you know could qualify for a commuted sentence, contact a local criminal defense attorney today.

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