Justice Dept. Searching for Crack Prisoners to Release

Monday, February 03, 2014

Are you currently serving a long federal prison sentence for a non-violent low-level drug crime? Then Uncle Sam wants you—to apply for clemency.


Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole said Thursday that he’s looking for defense lawyers to locate such prisoners, many of them convicted for offenses involving crack cocaine, and urge them to apply for clemency, according to The New York Times.


In 2010, federal sentences for drug offenses involving crack cocaine were brought in line with those involving powder cocaine. Previously, offenses involving crack, which was more often used in black communities, had much stiffer sentences than those involving powder, more often used by affluent whites, sometimes by a factor of 100 to 1.


“There are more low-level, non-violent 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 told those at a New York State Bar Association event.


When the sentence reduction went into effect, more than 1,800 prisoners were released, with the average sentence being trimmed by three years.


This piecemeal approach of each prisoner seeking clemency is necessary because Congress has yet to approve a bill that would retroactively lower sentences for those convicted before the change in the law. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved such a bill last week, but its fate is unclear at this point. Some prosecutors object to the bill’s provisions to weaken mandatory minimum sentences. If such a bill is passed, it could lead to as many as 12,000 prisoners being released early.


Many of those incarcerated on long drug sentences pleaded guilty in order to avoid even harsher prison terms. Prosecutors have wide latitude as to what charges to file and whether prior offenses are counted against a defendant. According to a report released last year by Human Rights Watch, those pleading guilty to federal drug charges were sentenced to an average of five years, four months. If the defendant insisted on his or her right to a trial, prosecutors sought much longer sentences, and those found guilty were sentenced to an average of 16 years in prison. As a result, 97% of drug suspects pleaded guilty.


President Obama campaigned on the issue of unfair drug sentencing laws during his 2008 campaign. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) said in 2007 that 82% of people convicted on crack possession charges were black, and 9% were white.

-Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

Justice Dept. Starts Quest for Inmates to Be Freed   (by Matt Apuzzo, New York Times)

U.S. Drug Defendants Often Coerced into Pleading Guilty  (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Thousands of Federal Crack Prisoners Set for Early Release  (by David Wallechinsky and Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Justice Department Moves to Equalize Cocaine Sentencing For All Races  (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


P.S. Ruckman, Jr. 10 years ago
What no journalist seems to have noted re this "big announcement" is that the DOJ had a record number of clemency applications last year, including a record number of applications for commutation of sentence. There is no shortage of applications. There is no need for more applications. There is need for care and concern in the Office of the Pardon Attorney and in the White House.

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