The U.S. Justice Department is launching an effort to free some of the thousands of people who are spending their lives in prison because they were convicted of nonviolent drug offenses under tougher laws than those on the books today.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole will announce the effort at the annual meeting of the New York State Bar Association's criminal justice section on Thursday afternoon. He's asking the bar association and others for help finding potential candidates for executive clemency.
In his prepared remarks, Cole applauded President Barack Obama for taking a "first step" toward righting the wrongs caused by unduly harsh sentencing laws. Last month, Obama commuted the sentences of eight people convicted of drug offenses under a 1986 law that has since been reformed.
Yet “there is more to be done,” said Cole. "There are more low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who remain in prison, and who would likely have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of precisely the same offenses today," he said. "This is not fair, and it harms our criminal justice system."
Cole sketched a portrait of the ideal candidate for clemency: “someone who has a clean record in prison, does not present a threat to public safety, and who is facing a life or near-life sentence that is excessive under current law -- with the opportunity to get a fresh start.”
The Supreme Court and Congress have softened some of the tough sentencing laws that were adopted at the height of the drug war in the 1980s. Yet as many as several thousand federal inmates are still living out their days in prison because they were sentenced under the original statutes.
"To help correct this, we need to identify these individuals and get well-prepared petitions into the Department of Justice," Cole said.
“Through our collective efforts," he added, "we can safeguard public safety while ensuring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness in our criminal justice system."