[JURIST] US Attorney General Eric Holder [official profile] announced [DOJ press release] Monday that the Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] is expanding its criteria for recommending clemency to federal prisoners convicted of certain drug crimes. Holder’s announcement recapped the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA) [text, PDF] that President Barack Obama signed into law in 2010, which addresses sentencing disparities for people convicted of crimes involving cocaine. The new, expanded criteria, to be announced later this week, will increase the amount of clemency applications sent to Obama for consideration. Holder stated that prisoners convicted under “the old regime” have far longer sentences than they would have if convicted today. Holder emphasized the White House’s [official website] commitment “to restor[ing] a degree of justice, fairness, and proportionality for deserving individuals who do not pose a threat to public safety.” The DOJ will be assigning “dozens” of lawyers to deal with the “thousands” of new applications expected as a result of the expanded criteria.
The expansion of the current clemency eligibility criteria is the latest action in the DOJ’s plan to reduce sentencing disparities for drug offenders in federal prisons. Last December, under the FSA, Obama commuted [JURIST report] the sentences of eight inmates serving time for cocaine-related crimes. Six of the inmates were serving life sentences and of those six, two were first-time offenders. In May the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held [JURIST report] that inmates convicted of crack cocaine offenses have a right to resentencing hearings under the FSA. The holding expanded the FSA to people whose cases were concluded before the law was passed. In June 1012, the US Supreme Court ruled [JURIST report] that the FSA applies to offenders who were sentenced after the Act was implemented, regardless of whether they were arrested before the act took effect. This overturned a US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit decision upholding offenders’ original sentences based on old sentencing guidelines.