The Obama administration is taking steps to reform the country’s harsh sentencing laws, which keep thousands of nonviolent drug offenders behind bars for most or all of their lifetime.
President Obama commuted the sentences of eight prisoners doing time for crack cocaine-related offenses last month. Now the Justice Department is asking lawyers to identify more candidates for clemency.
“There is more to be done, because there are others like the eight who were granted clemency,” Deputy Attorney General James Cole said at a New York State Bar Association meeting Thursday. “There are more low-level, non-violent drug offenders who remain in prison, and who would likely have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of precisely the same offenses today. This is not fair, and it harms our criminal justice system.”
Since those eight prisoners were sentenced, federal guidelines under the Obama administration have changed to lighten punishments for crack cocaine, which used to be harsher than the sentence for the powder form.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons will also begin helping prisoners connect with lawyers and apply for commutations.
The American Civil Liberties Union called the commutations “an important step toward undoing the damage that extreme sentencing has done to so many in our criminal justice system.”
The Judiciary Committee also voted 13-5 to advance the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would cut the length of many nonviolent drug sentences and give judges more discretion in limiting mandatory sentences, referred to as the “safety valve” provision.
"Take a look at where we are today," said Sen. Dick Durbin, (D-Ill.), who introduced the bill with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). "We have 500 percent more inmates than we did 30 years ago. Federal prisons are 40 percent over capacity."
Cole said in his speech that the legislation "could not only increase our confidence in our criminal justice system but also save our country billions of dollars in prison costs while keeping us safe."
Despite the promise of reform, Obama has been criticized for pardoning just 39 people, a low for any recent president, since taking office in 2009.
“Kudos to President Obama for commuting these eight people. But shame on the President for not commuting many more,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement. “With over 100,000 people still behind bars on non-violent drug charges, clearly thousands more are deserving of the same freedom.”
“Congress should act immediately to reduce the draconian federal mandatory minimum sentences that condemn thousands to decades behind bars for non-violent drug offenses.”