DOJ Offers New Clemency Program for Drug Offenders

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The Obama administration took another step to cut prison time for low-level drug offenders this week, offering a chance at clemency to some of those already serving long sentences.

The move is part of a broader effort by the administration to address the sentencing disparities for drug crimes and the massive prison population, which has grown by nearly 800 percent in the past 30 years, spurred in part by high prosecutions for minor drug crimes. About half of the 219,000 people in federal prison are serving time for drug offenses.

What to Watch: FRONTLINE’s two part investigation into America’s incarceration addiction. Solitary Nation, now streaming online, offers an up-close look at solitary confinement in a maximum security prison. Prison State, which premieres online and on air starting April 29, explores the long-term effect of mass incarceration.

Earlier this year, Attorney General Eric Holder instructed federal prosecutors to shift their focus away from these offenders. A few weeks ago, the U.S. Sentencing Commission altered its guidelines to give judges more leeway in prosecuting minor drug crimes.

Now, the Justice Department has said that it will expedite clemency applications for certain nonviolent federal inmates currently serving time for drug offenses that would have received lighter sentences today. Qualified applicants must have a clean record in prison and no history of violence.

The DOJ said it would issue an electronic survey to inmates to quickly determine who would qualify, and then assign them pro bono attorneys to help file the necessary paperwork. Anticipating a deluge of applications, DOJ said it had issued a call for attorneys willing to help review the extra clemency applications.

“Let there be no mistake, this clemency initiative should not be understood to minimize the seriousness of our federal criminal law and is designed, first and foremost, with public safety in mind,” said James Cole, the deputy attorney general, in announcing the program.

“For our criminal justice system to be effective, it needs to not only be fair; but it also must be perceived as being fair,” he added. “These older, stringent punishments that are out of line with sentences imposed under today’s laws erode people’s confidence in our criminal justice system.”

The federal reforms won’t have an impact on the bulk of the 2.2 million inmates incarcerated nationwide in state prisons and jails. But 40 states to date have also taken steps to address their own drug laws.

A New Approach to Clemency

The new progarm signals a shift in the Obama administration’s approach towards clemency. ProPublica reported in 2012 that Obama has granted fewer pardons than any modern president. While the number of clemency applications increased during his presidency, Obama, like his predecessors, relied on the recommendations of the Office of the Pardon Attorney, led by Ronald Rodgers, a Bush appointee.

A 2011 report by ProPublica found that Rodgers’ recommendations had a significant racial disparity: he was almost four times as likely to recommend pardoning whites. Black prisoners had the poorest chance.

In 2012, Rodgers was criticized in a scathing Inspector General report that found that he had deliberately withheld information from the White House on the clemency case of Clarence Aaron, a young African-American man who was serving a three life sentences for his minimal role in a drug conspiracy trial. FRONTLINE chronicled his story in the 1999 film, Snitch.

Rodgers’ “conduct fell substantially short of the high standards to be expected of Department of Justice employees and of the duty that he owed to the President of the United States,” the report said.

Obama ordered a new review of Aaron’s case following a series of reports by ProPublica and The Washington Post. In December 2013, the president commuted Aaron’s sentence.

After serving 20 years, Aaron was released last week.

The Justice Department said today that it had replaced Rodgers with Deborah Leff, an attorney who previously worked in the department’s Access to Justice program, which was established to improve fairness in the criminal and civil justice system.

“The doors of the office of the pardon attorney have been closed to petitioners for too long,” said Mary Price, general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group, in a recent release on the decision. “This announcement signals a truly welcome change; the culture of ‘no’ that has dominated that office is being transformed.”

Obama has also indicated he plans to get more involved. Last month, according to Yahoo News, he told U.S. attorneys that he wanted to personally examine every new clemency application.

Prison reform has emerged as a bipartisan effort at both the state and federal level. Next week, in part two of FRONTLINE’s investigation into America’s fixation on incarceration, we explore one state’s effort to reverse the trend.

Prison State premieres Tuesday April 29 at 10 pm EST online and on most PBS stations (check local listings).

Prisoners being released from a facility in Kentucky, as part of the state's new prison reforms.
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