The Justice Department is broadening the criteria it will use in evaluating clemency petitions from certain federal prisoners and expects the changes to result in thousands of new applications, Attorney General Eric Holder said Monday.
The criteria, which are aimed at inmates serving time for nonviolent drug offenses, are intended to lead to a reduction in the nation's federal prison population and also to "ensure that those who have paid their debts have a chance to become productive citizens," Holder said in a video message.
The announcement is part of an ongoing Obama administration push to re-evaluate sentences for drug crimes that officials believe were unduly harsh and were imposed under old federal guidelines that treated convictions for crack cocaine offenses more punitively than those involving the powder form of the drug.
In December, for instance, President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of eight drug prisoners — including six who were serving life sentences — sentenced under old federal guidelines. In January, the Justice Department publicly encouraged defense lawyers from around the country to help low-level, nonviolent drug offenders prepare petitions for clemency.
The department evaluates and recommends clemency applications for the president's review, taking into account factors such as the seriousness of the crime and input from the prosecuting office. Historically, the overwhelming majority of requests for pardons and sentence commutations are not granted.
Holder said the department was prepared to receive thousands of additional applications for clemency and may assign dozens of lawyers to review them.