Long overdue justice for nonviolent drug offenders

DOJ announces potential clemency for thousands of federal prisoners

Thousands of nonviolent, low-level drug offenders will be applying for clemency - presidential pardons - following an announcement by the Department of Justice (DOJ).

U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole announced a significant policy shift last week. The DOJ will expand the criteria for federal inmates to receive clemency. The announcement is a major change for the department and those imprisoned under War on Drugs policies, likely to result in thousands of applications for pardons from prison sentences.

The Obama administration initiative will result in long-delayed justice for thousands of Americans convicted under out-of-date, often overtly prejudicial, laws. For a nation plagued by an indefensibly vast prison population and countless communities wracked by unconscionable imprisonment rates over the past decades, the announcement is a first step toward a department that actually defends justice.

Cole laid out six criteria for prisoners to be eligible, including a nonviolent record, previous good conduct in prisons and a minimum of 10 years already served in a federal facility. The generally reasonable restrictions ensure those granted clemency would have already served a fair sentence.

Civil rights groups have lauded the policy change as a step in the right direction, though it is far from a final solution in reversing decades of prejudicial drug charges and prison sentences.

Those most affected by the change are expected to be citizens sentenced before the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act. The act significantly reduced the 100:1 sentencing ratio between those convicted on crack cocaine as opposed to powdered cocaine charges. The glaring disparity, long criticized as unwarranted, was implemented under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986.

The potential clemency extended last week will effectively correct the injustice served to some of those charged under the 1986 law, cutting otherwise overly arduous sentences. The clemency was meant to correct injustices due to "out-of-date laws" that "no longer seem appropriate," according to Cole.

Indeed, in addition to the crack cocaine sentencing disparity, the treatment many of these potentially pardoned prisoners received was far from fair or just. Nonviolent, low-level drug offenses should not trigger decades-long imprisonments.

The announcement is long overdue, from a president that has handed down fewer pardons than any other modern president. It begins to correct the burden our society carries, established by laws that are no longer aligned with current laws.

This pardon, however, will make more powerful headlines than it will substantive change.

The precedent is dramatic and certainly attention grabbing, but the efficacy of it can scarcely be assessed until the first prisoner is pardoned.

Beyond this, the policy is little more than a first step toward the structural change necessary to reform our over-crowded prisons and broken War on Drugs era legal code regarding controlled substances. The type of change needed will take more than pardoning criminals - it will require fundamentally changing how drugs charges are written and handled.

The ruling has brought greater visibility to an issue affecting a population too often left unseen. The plight of those wronged by former sentencing requirements is locked away from public visibility; this announcement has thrust the issue onto front pages.

The DOJ and administration should be applauded for beginning to correct these injustices, so long as this announcement is only a beginning.

email: editorial@ubspectrum.com