Obama Aims to Give Clemency to More Drug Offenders

Monday, 21 Apr 2014 03:19 PM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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Nonviolent drug convicts who have served long sentences could leave prison sooner, as President Barack Obama plans to consider additional clemency applications, Attorney General Eric Holder says.

The White House wants to "restore a degree of justice, fairness, and proportionality for deserving individuals who do not pose a threat to public safety," Holder said in a video released Monday. "The Justice Department is committed to recommending as many qualified applicants as possible for reduced sentences."

The effort will focus on prisoners who were sentenced under minimum guidelines to more time behind bars than they would face if they committed the same type of crime now, Holder said, as federal prisoners "sentenced under the old regime" have ended up serving longer sentences.

Story continues below video.



"We're dealing with a particular problem, and that is that I think the pendulum swung a little too far in the '80s," Holder said.

The Justice Department is establishing new criteria to allow a wider variety of applications to be considered, and Holder said the Office of the Pardon Attorney will likely hire several new attorneys to handle the applications.

Obama has granted only 10 commutations in his more than five years of office, Politico reports. In addition, he has granted 52 pardons, all to convicts who had finished serving their time.

During a congressional hearing earlier this month, Virginia Republican Rep. Randy Forbes said the commutation plan goes too far.

"Can you give me any precedent of previous attorney generals' offices who have solicited petitions for pardons or clemency limited to a particular category of crime?" Forbes said, complaining that there are offenders in prison for "white-collar crime or campaign finance laws or a host of other areas that have been over-criminalized, all who also do the overcrowding that we’re very concerned with, but have a much lower recidivism rate."

Tennessee Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen asked during the same hearing if the government has considered a group commutation of all those sentenced under laws that have eased, including a law that imposed greater penalties for crack cocaine instead of the powder form.

Holder said the government is looking more for individuals who would be deserving and who lack ties to violence or gangs.

While Obama's clemency acts would be on the federal prison level, California Gov. Jerry Brown has gotten a jump start on the state level, granting pardons to 63 people last week.

The Democratic governor's office announced the pardons Friday, reports The Huffington Post, saying that those pardoned had all completed their sentences and have been out of custody for more than 10 years without committing more crimes.

More than 40 of the people Brown pardoned were convicted of possessing, selling or making controlled substances, but after getting out of prison, many are active in public service, such as drug counseling or working to support nonprofit organizations.

In the notices, Brown wrote that the people being pardoned had "lived an honest and upright life, exhibited good moral character and conducted [themselves] as law-abiding citizen[s]." The pardons don't erase the convictions from the person's record, but they do restore rights such as voting, and in some cases, owning a licensed firearm.

Brown, who is Catholic, has often timed his pardons during the Christian holidays, generally granting them around Christmas and Easter, including 63 pardons granted this year on Good Friday. He pardoned 127 people last Christmas, including 93 for drug-related crimes.

Other California governors, though, were not as forgiving. Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gray Davis, and Pete Wilson granted a total of just 29 pardons over two decades.

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