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Obama Seeks Wider Authority To Release Drug Offenders

President Obama signs the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, as Attorney General Eric Holder and a bipartisan group of senators look on.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais
President Obama signs the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, as Attorney General Eric Holder and a bipartisan group of senators look on.

Attorney General Eric Holder announced Monday that the Obama administration is formulating new rules that would give it, and the president, far more latitude to pardon or reduce the sentences of thousands of drug offenders serving long federal prison sentences.

The move comes amid a broad national reconsideration of mandatory minimum sentences approved by Congress in 1986, when America's big cities were in the grip of a crack cocaine-fueled crime wave.

"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," Holder said in an online video statement released midday Monday.

"The Justice Department is committed to recommending as many qualified applicants as possible for reduced sentences," he said.

In anticipation of a massive influx of applications from federal prisoners seeking clemency or a reduction in their drug-related prison terms, the Justice Department will create a team of lawyers with backgrounds in prosecution and defense, the administration says, to review the applications.

Further detail about "expanded criteria" used to review the particular situations of drug offenders seeking relief through the program will be released later this week, according the department.

The Justice Department has already held meetings with defense lawyers and interest groups in an effort to identify the cases of worthy prisoners who could qualify for clemency. The administration is looking at inmates who have "clean records, no significant ties to gangs or violence, and who are serving decades behind bars for relatively low-level offenses."

The administration's move Monday comes four years after Obama signed the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which was designed to reduce the disparity between sentencing rules for crack and powder cocaine. In a precursor to today's announcement, the president last December commuted the sentences of eight federal inmates serving long sentences — including six with life terms — for crack cocaine offenses.

At the time, Obama said that the inmates had been sentenced under an "unfair system" that meted out far longer sentences for crack cocaine than powdered cocaine.

If sentenced under the current, post-2010 sentencing law, he said, "many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society."

Congress is currently discussing comprehensive, bipartisan legislation that would cut minimum sentences by half, give judges more sentencing discretion, and retroactively apply new crack cocaine sentencing standards to prisoners convicted under previous requirements.

One bill, sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, would cut by half the five-, 10-, and 20-year minimums now required for first and second drug-sale offenses.

Holder announced last August that the Justice Department would not pursue mandatory minimum sentences in cases involving low-level, nonviolent drug defendants. He followed with a set of guidelines for federal prosecutors.

In announcing the effort Monday, Holder said that 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," he said.

Some federal prosecutors have pushed back on efforts to change mandatory sentencing laws, arguing that they believe they are an effective tool in wringing out information involving important drug kingpin cases or major murders.

Other prosecutors were also wary of the proposed changes.

"Prosecutors' fears are that our record low level of serious crime in America will begin to rise and nobody will monitor the cost of re-arresting offenders when they commit new crimes, and re-prosecuting them," says Scott Burns, head of the National District Attorneys Association. "Bottom line, if it ain't broke why fix it?"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.