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Select drug crimes: Signs herald bold clemency move by president

In a video recently released to the public, United States Attorney General Eric Holder addressed federal drug policy and sentencing, voicing his view that "the pendulum swung a little too far in the '80s."

A number of signs now indicate that the Obama administration would like to rein in and even reverse that arc considerably and has in fact taken concrete steps to do just that.

The president is firmly on record with his dissatisfaction regarding the stringency of sentences handed down to offenders facing relatively minor drug charges. Although he has been notably conservative thus far in exercising his clemency powers to commute prisoners' sentences, that restraint seems about to change, and possibly in a material way.

In taped comments released earlier this month, Holder said that his department is gearing up to consider additional proposals for clemency from prisoners doing time on drug charges. Applications could soon be arriving in high numbers at the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney from prisoners across the country, including inmates serving time in Arkansas facilities.

Holder stated that the increased activity at the DOJ, including the setting of broader criteria that will enable more prisoners to apply for clemency and the beefing up of an attorney staff to vet applications, is at the behest of the White House.

A central goal of clemency evaluators will be the identification of prisoners who, if sentenced today, would receive less prison time than the terms they are currently serving that were handed down during a harsher sentencing era.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney stated that he “couldn’t begin to speculate” regarding how many prisoners might ultimately have their sentences commuted. Holder noted that any group commutation is unlikely and that his department would instead be focused on making decisions on a case-by-case basis.

Source: Politico, “Holder: Obama to dramatically expand drug clemency,” John Gerstein, April 21, 2014

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