DOJ offers early release to more prisoners

The Justice Department will begin accepting clemency applications for nonviolent, low-level criminals who have served out at least 10 years of their sentence under new guidelines outlined Wednesday. 

At the request of the White House, the Justice Department will put a priority on six new factors when evaluating clemency applications. The changes are expected to result in a surge of letters to President Obama, with many coming from people serving drug sentences. 

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Those being considered should be serving out a term that would have likely been lower if sentenced under current guidelines. They cannot have ties to criminal organizations, possess a significant criminal history, or have a violent background. The inmates must also have served out at least 10 years of their sentence and maintained good conduct while there.

"Let there be no mistake, this clemency initiative should not be understood to minimize the seriousness of our federal criminal law and is designed, first and foremost, with public safety in mind," deputy Attorney General James Cole said in prepared remarks Wednesday. "Even low-level offenders cause harm to people through their criminal actions, and many need to be incarcerated."

The Justice Department appointed Deborah Leff as the new head of the Office of the Pardon Attorney, replacing current director Ronald Rodgers. Leff was the acting senior counselor for access to Justice. 

The White House has pushed to consider more clemency applications for people — many of whom are drug offenders — who do not pose a threat to safety. Many of the new applications will come from people sentenced under previous guidelines for crack cocaine. 

Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010 that reduced the divide between punishment for crack cocaine and powder cocaine charges, which the administration has called harsh and unfair. In December, Obama granted clemency to eight drug offenders who largely met criteria outlined Wednesday. 

Inmates can also apply for clemency through the previous guidelines for executive clemency, which include a combination of factors like "disparity or undue severity of sentence, critical illness or old age, and meritorious service rendered to the government."

The Justice Department sent a letter to 93 U.S. attorneys around the country seeking clemency petitions, and inmates will be informed in the next few days.

It is unclear how many applications the new guidelines will bring in, but Cole issued a call for attorneys in the department willing to help review the new applications. 

Cole made sure to highlight that the commutation of a prisoner's sentence is not a pardon. 

"They are not an expression of forgiveness," he said. "Rather, as the president said, they are an 'important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness.' " 

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) this week acknowledged that Obama had the authority to grant clemency but encouraged Obama to go through Congress if he wants further sentencing reform — something the administration has pushed for.

"I hope President Obama is not seeking to change sentencing policy unilaterally," he said earlier this week.