Thousands of jailed non-violent drug offenders to receive clemency
Under new guidelines to be announced by Attorney General Eric Holder later this week, there are potentially thousands of non violent inmates with drug convictions in federal prisons who will be eligible for clemency.
Is this a good idea?
Few would claim our drug laws make much sense, Mandatory sentences for possessing small amounts of drugs have placed thousands of otherwise law abiding citizens in jail. The question becomes how do you define "non violent" and which inmates won't constitute a threat to society if they are freed?
There is a racial element to this policy that can't be ignored. Jesse Jackson says there are too many black people in jail. So does Al Sharpton. So does Eric Holder. It appears that one of the criteria embedded in this new policy will be to address a racial imbalance in prison populations.
Obama three years ago signed the Fair Sentencing Act to address the larger issue. And last December, he commuted the sentences of eight federal inmates convicted of crack cocaine crimes, concluding those offenses that did not justify such lengthy prison terms.
The issue has racial overtones, since U.S. Sentencing Commission figures in 2006 showed African-Americans made up nearly 82 percent of defendants sentenced in federal court for dealing crack, but only 27 percent of those sentenced for dealing powder cocaine.
In 2011, federal courts dealt with more than 10,000 cocaine sentences a year, roughly evenly divided between crack and cases involving the powdered substance.
Until the changes started nearly a decade ago, the sentencing guidelines provided for a 100-to-1 ratio between the penalties for crack cocaine offenses versus those for powdered cocaine.
Dealing 5 grams of crack meant some defendants could get as much prison time as someone who dealt 500 grams of powder.
The 100-to-1 factor had long been a source of contention between government prosecutors and civil rights advocates, who argued crack dealers were targeted for longer prison terms because that drug is prevalent in urban and minority communities, while the powdered version is more commonly associated with higher-income users.
Actions taken by the President, lawmakers, and the Sentencing Commission -- an independent federal agency that advises all three branches of government on sentences -- served to cut the gap in recommended prison time for offenses involving the two varieties of cocaine.
In the private sector, Families Against Mandatory Minimums has fought for changes in mandatory cocaine penalties for years.
The fair sentencing law changed the 100-to-1 disparity between minimum sentences for crack and powder cocaine to 18 to 1.
The color that matters in these cases isn't black or white - it's green. If you've got the money to pay for a top flight lawyer, you can usually stay out of prison.
Prisons are overcrowded as it is, so setting non violent offenders free would seem, on the surface, to save prison beds for those who are truly a threat to society. But just because someone has never been convicted of a violent crime doesn't mean they're a saint. I have no doubt that some people who shouldn't be released, will be.
It appears that the government will actually recruit inmates to apply for clemency:
Once these reforms go into effect, we expect to receive thousands of additional applications for clemency,” Holder said. “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.”
White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler said Obama has directed the department to improve its process for clemency recommendations and try to recruit more applicants from the federal prison population of low-level drug offenders.
In a speech at New York University’s law school last week, Ruemmler said clemency is an important “fail-safe mechanism” in the criminal justice system.
“When a worthy candidate runs out of other options,” she said, “the president has the power to correct an injustice that no one else has.”
Let's hope they know what they're doing. Otherwise, we'll be releasing a lot of people back into already troubled communities who may return to their criminal ways.