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Justice Department Drug Case Clemency Meeting Has Advocate 'Really Encouraged'

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Deputy Attorney General James Cole  (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Deputy Attorney General James Cole (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

WASHINGTON -- A top Justice Department official met with defense lawyers and criminal justice reform advocates on Tuesday, seeking help in finding prisoners serving drug sentences who might be good candidates for early release.

Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who announced last month that DOJ would seek help identifying prisoners serving long drug sentences for low-level offenses, instead of waiting for Congress to overhaul the criminal justice system, met with interested stakeholders on Tuesday, a department spokeswoman said.

DOJ plans to make sure clemency candidates have representation to present their case to the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney. Despite President Barack Obama's poor pardon and clemency record, the president in December commuted the sentences of eight people who were convicted of crack cocaine offenses before the disparity in sentences for crack and powder cocaine was reformed in 2010. One of those whose sentence was commuted, Jason Hernandez, described crying and shaking after learning he would no longer be behind bars until he died.

"The department wants to ensure that individuals like the eight whose sentences the president commuted in December have access to attorneys to help them present their cases," the DOJ spokeswoman said. "In particular, the department has emphasized that the initiative is focused on inmates who have a clean prison record, no significant ties to organized crime or gangs, a non-violent history, and who are currently serving life sentences or near life-sentences for low-level offenses."

Mary Price of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, who attended Tuesday's meeting, told NPR that she was "really encouraged."

"We look forward to working together with them and others to help identify potential commutation cases and ensure prisoners have trained pro bono counsel to submit focused petitions for the meaningful consideration the deputy attorney general has pledged they will receive," Price said, adding that commutation "isn't the way to fix the system."

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