- The Washington Times - Friday, January 31, 2014

The Obama administration is moving toward reducing the criminal penalties for nonviolent drug offenders serving long prison terms to help blunt the rising costs of federal imprisonment and tame the growing racial disparities within the prison population.

The move may allow thousands of offenders, currently serving jail time, to apply to get out of prison early, although it’s unclear specifically which offenders would apply and how many applications would be granted.

The decision to commute sentences of nonviolent drug offenders is only the “first step” in helping to reduce the nation’s growing prison population, said James Cole, deputy attorney general at the Department of Justice, in a speech he gave Thursday in New York.

“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,” Mr. Cole said in a statement. “This is not fair, and it harms our criminal justice system.”

The Bureau of Prisons will start telling federal inmates to apply for clemency, and the administration is asking bar associations to train lawyers to deal with the petitions, Mr. Cole said.

Clemency will not be offered to inmates who have had any significant ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels, he said.

In 2010, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, aimed at trying to reduce the racial disparity of those sentenced to prison on cocaine charges. Before the act, the law treated 1 gram of crack cocaine as the equivalent of 100 grams of powder cocaine. That provision led to an increased number of black inmates compared to white, as crack cocaine users tend to be poor and black, and powder cocaine users’ upper-class and white.

The Senate is also looking at how to better handle the over criminalization of nonviolent drug users. The Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill Thursday that would make the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive and lower some mandatory jail-time minimums.

Some lawmakers are wary of becoming too lenient.

“The supposedly nonviolent drug offenders this bill addresses are mostly drug dealers,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Republican ranking member on the committee, in prepared remarks. The Iowa senator said the number of people in federal prison for merely possessing drugs is near zero.