Justice Department Set to Expand Clemency Criteria, Will Prepare for Wave of Applications from Drug Offenders in Federal Prison

Washington, DC - In an important step to reduce sentencing disparities for drug offenders in the federal prison system, Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday announced that the Justice Department will soon detail new, more expansive criteria that the department will use in considering when to recommend clemency applications for President Obama’s review.

In anticipation of the increase of eligible petitioners, the Justice Department is preparing to assign lawyers - with backgrounds in both prosecution and defense - to review the applications.

“The White House has indicated it wants to consider additional clemency applications, to restore a degree of justice, fairness and proportionality for deserving individuals who do not pose a threat to public safety,” said Attorney General Holder in a video message posted on the department’s website.  “The Justice Department is committed to recommending as many qualified applicants as possible for reduced sentences.”

Later this week, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole is expected to announce more specific details about the expanded criteria the department will use and the logistical effort underway to ensure proper reviews of the anticipated wave of applications.

 The complete text of Attorney General Holder’s video message is below:

“In 2010, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, reducing unfair disparities in sentences imposed on people for offenses involving different forms of cocaine.

“But there are still too many people in federal prison who were sentenced under the old regime – and who, as a result, will have to spend far more time in prison than they would if sentenced today for exactly the same crime.

“This is simply not right.

“Legislation pending in Congress would help address these types of cases.  In the meantime, President Obama took a sensible step towards addressing this situation by granting commutations last December to eight men and women who had each served more than 15 years in prison for crack cocaine offenses.  For two of these individuals, it was the first conviction they’d ever received – yet, due to mandatory minimum guidelines that were considered severe at the time, and are profoundly out of date today – they and four others received life sentences.

“These stories illustrate the vital role that the clemency process can play in America’s justice system.

“The White House has indicated it wants to consider additional clemency applications, to restore a degree of justice, fairness, and proportionality for deserving individuals who do not pose a threat to public safety.  The Justice Department is committed to recommending as many qualified applicants as possible for reduced sentences.

“Later this week, the deputy attorney general will announce new criteria that the department will consider when recommending applications for the President’s review.  This new and improved approach will make the criteria for clemency recommendation more expansive.  This will allow the Department of Justice and the president to consider requests from a larger field of eligible individuals.

“Once these reforms go into effect, we expect to receive thousands of additional applications for clemency.  And we at the Department of Justice will meet this need by assigning potentially dozens of lawyers – with backgrounds in both prosecution and defense – to review applications and provide the rigorous scrutiny that all clemency applications require.

“As a society, we pay much too high a price whenever our system fails to deliver the just outcomes necessary to deter and punish crime, to keep us safe, and to ensure that those who have paid their debts have a chance to become productive citizens. 

“Our expanded clemency application process will aid in this effort.  And it will advance the aims of our innovative new Smart on Crime initiative – to strengthen the criminal justice system, promote public safety and deliver on the promise of equal justice under law.”

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