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Obama seeks low-level offenders for possible clemency

Posted Jan 31, 2014 7:00 AM CDT
By Molly McDonough

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In what the New York Times characterizes as an "unprecedented move," the Justice Department on Thursday asked defense lawyers to help identify low-level offenders who were sentenced under tough drug laws during the crack cocaine epidemic.

"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," said Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole, who was speaking at a New York State Bar Association event. “This is not fair, and it harms our criminal justice system.”

The Times reports that president is looking to grant clemency to offenders as part of the administration's effort is to, "undo a disparity that flooded the nation’s prison system and disproportionately affected black men."

Specifically targeted are sentences involving crack cocaine, which was more commonly used in black communities and carried more severe penalties than penalties for powder cocaine, which was more often used by affluent whites.

In 2010, Congress reduced the disparity. And in December, President Obama commuted sentences for eight offenders caught in an "unfair system."

The Times notes that Congress is considering legislation that would make the new sentencing guidelines retroactive, making up to 12,000 prisoners eligible for reduction in sentencing.

Citing federal data, the Times notes that at the end of 2011, some 30,000 inmates, about 15 percent of the prison population, were serving sentences related to crack cocaine.

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