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Drug crimes clemency: Is president poised to act in a big way?

Proponents of drug sentencing reforms deemed necessary to alleviate the perceived harshness of the so-called War on Drugs likely have a jump in their step these days, owing to a recent announcement made by United States Attorney General Eric Holder.

If Holder’s words ring true and his projections pan out, the message he delivered earlier this week might someday be termed “The Myth of the Reluctant President.”

Here’s why. Thus far in his presidency, President Obama has unquestionably been a reluctant executive when it comes to using his clemency powers to free select prisoners convicted of drug crimes from incarceration or cut short their terms.

In fact, he has been downright stingy, granting clemency only 10 times in five-plus years.

Based on what Holder now says and recent recommendations from his department to federal prosecutors, that could be about to change in a big way.

“You can’t come in, I think, on Day One and do the kinds of things we’re now doing in Year 5,” Holder said this past Monday.

Those “things” all point to a clear desire by the Obama administration to commute the sentences of many nonviolent prisoners who are languishing behind bars for lengthy terms imposed for relatively minor drug offenses under what Holder calls “the old regime.” Earlier this year, Holder instructed federal prosecutors to avoid charging defendants in certain drug cases in ways that triggered long mandatory minimum sentences. He also indicated that the DOJ would be increasing its efforts to identify prisoners worthy of clemency.

The pro-clemency momentum now seems to have gained strong traction, with Holder pointing to a beefed-up process now in place for soliciting and vetting clemency applications. An expanded team of attorneys is in place to deal with what could be a strong surge in applications.

The number of prison sentences that could potentially be commuted is unclear, although a strong hint seems to have been provided by a comment made by the president late last year. He noted the disparity between current and previous sentencing laws and stated that “thousands of inmates” sentenced under the old laws were languishing behind bars for comparatively long periods.

Source: Politico, "Holder: Obama to dramatically expand drug clemency," Josh Gerstein, April 21, 2014

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