President Obama finally used his power to pardon and commute sentences to order the release of 8 low-level drug offenders serving outrageously long sentences, but there are tens of thousands more in the same situation. The DOJ says it’s looking for others with similar sentences to commute.
The Department of Justice is aiming to cut short the prison terms of some offenders who were handed sentences 100 times more severe because of an outdated racially discriminatory drug disparity, Deputy Attorney General James Cole announced Thursday.
Last month, President Obama shortened the sentences of eight crack offenders punished under the discriminatory regime, using his power under the Constitution to issue pardons (which erase the sentence) and commutations (which cut the sentences short). Cole said Thursday before a New York gathering of lawyers that those commutations were just a “first step” and that it is the Justice Department’s goal to “find additional candidates” and recommend them to the president for clemency.
“There are more low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who remain in prison, and who would likely have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of precisely the same offenses today,” Cole said. “This is not fair, and it harms our criminal justice system.”
The Justice Department is looking for more “non-violent, low-level offenders” without a prior criminal record and potential to restart their life, he said. And the Bureau of Prisons will be advising inmates of the opportunity to apply for commutation.
Cole described the initiative in a speech that lamented the exploding U.S. prison population,driven largely by drug sentences. Echoing remarks by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder this summer as he announced Justice Department plans to curb over-criminalization of drugs and move toward “smarter sentencing,” Cole noted that federal prisons are now operating at 33 percent over capacity, and more than half of the offenders are there for drug offenses.
I wonder if it makes a difference in terms of their eligibility for Pell grants and other benefits if they’re pardoned rather than having their sentences commuted. One of the big problems is that multiple laws that forbid convicted criminals of receiving public assistance, including federal student aid and public housing, is that those who are released find it nearly impossible to get back on their feet and become productive outside of a life of crime.