It has long been known that prison sentences for convictions involving crack cocaine us are disproportionately more severe than those involving cocaine in powder form. In recent years, as our criminal defense lawyers know, the Obama Administration has taken a number of steps aimed at lessening the disparity.
According to an announcement made on Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder said that the Justice Department will, in effect, make it easier for those sentenced for crack cocaine offenses to make clemency appeals. He further announced that, when the new rules go into effect, he expects the number of eligible clemency petitioners to increase significantly.
When an inmate files a petition for clemency (reduced or suspended sentences), the application is reviewed by the department before being sent to the president for review. The issue of reducing or suspending crack cocaine-related sentences is nothing new for President Obama.
In 2010, the president signed into law the “Fair Sentencing Act,” which decreased the imbalance between the amount of crack cocaine and powdered cocaine needed to automatically activate various federal criminal penalties from a ratio of 100:1 to only 18:1, still vastly unequal but far less unjust than the previous ratio. In addition, the Fair Sentencing Act eliminated the previously-instituted five year mandatory minimum sentence for the simple possession of crack cocaine.
More recently, this past December, President Obama commuted the sentences of eight federal prison inmates who had been convicted of crack cocaine offenses, believing that the eight crimes in question did not justify the lengthy prison terms.
Attorney General Eric Holder eluded to the upcoming changes last month, when he publicly announced that he supports a plan geared at reducing sentences for certain drug crimes. While penalties will remain harsh for violent offenders, Holder opined that the reduced sentences could reduce the federal prison population by upwards of 6,000 inmates within five years. Such a reduction in prison occupancy would significantly decrease the amount of taxpayer money devoted to federal prison expenses, which would be a smart move in this era of unbalance budgets and unreasonably high rates of incarceration.
The revised clemency criteria will reportedly allow thousands of individuals currently in federal prison to lobby for a reduced or suspended prison sentence. According to Holder, the White House has stated its intent to review as many applications as possible in an effort to restore a degree of justice for individuals who do not pose a threat to society — individuals who have had their lives unfairly derailed due to unfair sentencing guidelines.
For more information on this issue, please review the Justice Department’s announcement of April 21st, 2014, located here.