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Justice Department invites thousands of inmates to seek clemency

WASHINGTON – The Justice Department on Wednesday unveiled the most ambitious federal clemency program in 40 years, inviting thousands of jailed drug offenders and other convicts to seek early release as part of a new program intended to correct sentencing injustices and relieve prison overcrowding.

Though eligibility restrictions may limit how many prisoners are ultimately released to several hundred, experts said they had not seen such a sweeping use of presidential clemency power to achieve a policy goal since President Gerald R. Ford’s amnesty for Vietnam draft dodgers in the 1970s.

The program is part of a campaign being waged by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to scale back the use of mandatory sentences and reduce the overall prison population, particularly among African-American drug offenders serving long sentences for nonviolent crimes.

Since taking office, President Obama has lagged well behind other modern presidents in granting pardons or commutations. But while it remained unclear how many prisoners would benefit, the program is likely to bring his numbers in line with recent predecessors and possibly push them far beyond.

What is most unusual is the move to solicit requests for clemency from prisoners and to streamline the process for getting applications to the president’s desk.

Prisoners will be notified of the new policy starting next week, and they will be able to fill out an electronic survey that will be used to evaluate their application.

Prisoners will be provided free, volunteer lawyers who answered a call to service issued in January by Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole.

Cole also said Wednesday that the department’s current pardon attorney, Ron Rodgers, would step aside and Justice Department lawyer Deborah Leff, a longtime prisoner advocate, would take his place.

The primary target of the program will be crack cocaine users and dealers who were sentenced under a particularly tough law that was relaxed by Congress in 2010. An estimated 7,000 to 8,000 prisoners would not be incarcerated today if they had been sentenced under the new law, though many of those will not be eligible for release under the program.

“Correcting these sentences is simply a matter of fairness that is fundamental to our principles at the department, and it’s a commitment that all Department of Justice employees stand behind,” Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole said. “The fundamental American concept, equal justice under law, requires that our laws be enforced fairly – and not just going forward. It is equally important that we extend this fairness to those who are already serving prison sentences for their crimes.”

Experts cautioned that the department’s stringent criteria for release would limit the number of those who would be eligible for a presidential commutation.

Prisoners must have already served 10 years and must be facing a substantially longer sentence than they would have received today, Cole said. They must have no violent incidents on their records and no affiliation with gangs.

Some Republicans criticized the announcement.

“In an unprecedented move to dramatically expand the clemency process for federal drug offenders, President Obama has again demonstrated his blatant disregard for our nation’s laws and our system of checks and balances embedded in the U.S. Constitution,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., said.