The Obama Administration continues to rollback oppressive sentences for those with non-violent drug convictions
By Cliff Weathers / AlterNet
An unnamed White House official has told Yahoo! News that President Barack Obama is preparing to grant clemency to “hundreds, perhaps thousands” of people who have been imprisoned for non-violent drug violations.
This news comes a few months after the administration’s announcement that it has encouraged defense attorneys to suggest inmates who should be considered for early release from prison. This indicates that the Obama administration will continue in its efforts to curtail severe penalties in low-level drug cases.
Late last year, President Obama commuted the sentences of nine people serving time in federal prison for non-violent offenses involving crack cocaine, saying that they had been sentenced under an “unfair system.” There is a huge disparity in sentences handed down between crack and powder cocaine offenses. This has been reduced somewhat by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which brought a long-sought reduction in the penalties for crack cocaine.
The earlier sentencing guidelines, enacted in 1986 (at the peak of the panic over crack), set a five-year minimum sentence for possession of five grams of crack, then worth about $500. Meanwhile, the same penalty applied to those convicted for half a kilogram of powder cocaine, which had a street value of more than $8,000. The results were that federal prosecutors primarily went after small-time dealers and users. Back in 2005, about 55 percent of federal crack cocaine defendants were street dealers.
The Fair Sentencing Act raised the quantity of crack needed to trigger the five-year minimum from five grams to an ounce, and its guidance applies retroactively for many of those already convicted. Yet, only about half the 24,000 federal prisoners serving time for crack cocaine offenses were eligible to have their sentences reduced.
Attorney General Eric Holder has been a harsh critic of the nation’s huge incarceration numbers, and has pledged to cut mandatory minimums and further soften sentencing guidelines.
However, despite its earlier justice-reform rhetoric and action, this marks the first time that President Obama is using his executive powers to grant mass clemency for non-violent drug related offenses. He has been under significant public pressure from families of the incarcerated and fair-sentencing groups to act.
“This would be a positive step toward righting the wrongs of our broken criminal justice system,” said Anthony Papa, a spokesperson for the Drug Policy Alliance, who was granted clemency in New York in 1997 after serving 12 years under the state’s notorious Rockefeller Drug Laws. “I hope governors with the same power at the state level follow his lead and reunite more families.”
“With half a million people still behind bars on non-violent drug charges, clearly thousands are deserving of a second chance. Congress should act immediately to reduce the draconian federal mandatory minimum sentences that condemn thousands to decades behind bars for non-violent drug offenses,” said Papa.
Cliff Weathers is a senior editor at AlterNet, covering environmental and consumer issues. Follow him on Twitter @cliffweathers.