Justice Dept. Opens Door To Freedom For Some Nonviolent Offenders

The Justice Department is considering clemency for thousands of people who are incarcerated on nonviolent drug charges and who have also served at least 10 years of their sentences.

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The Justice Department wants to grant an early release to thousands of nonviolent drug offenders in crowded federal prisons and they've unveiled a plan to do it. Inmates will receive notice starting next week that they may be eligible to apply. That has government lawyers gearing up for a huge amount of work. Here's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Deputy Attorney General Jim Cole says there's no time to waste.

JIM COLE: We are launching this clemency initiative in order to quickly and effectively identify appropriate candidates, candidates who have a clean prison record do not present a threat to public safety and were sentenced under out-of-date laws that have since been changed and are no longer seen as appropriate.

JOHNSON: In order to apply, federal prison inmates will also need to show they have served at least 10 years of their sentence and have no ties to gangs or cartels. About 12 percent of the U.S. prison population, more than 20,000 people, may be eligible for the early release program. But Cole says he expects only a fraction of the applications will be granted.

He's enlisting outside groups to help inmates with the paperwork. Vanita Gupta is deputy legal director at the ACLU, which is taking part in the clemency project.

VANITA GUPTA: We are going to need hundreds, if not thousands, of lawyers to step up and take these cases and write petitions so that we can get the right picture sent before the Department of Justice. This is a massive effort.

JOHNSON: The Office of Pardon Attorney, which operates within the Justice Department to review those applications has been criticized by its own inspector general for huge backlogs and its approach to inmates. The deputy attorney general today named a new leader for that office, Deborah Leff.

COLE: Debbie has committed her career to the very basis of this initiative: achieving equal justice under law.

JOHNSON: Cole says he's moving a group of prosecutors into the Pardon Office to help her and in an unusual approach, some public defenders will work there, too. All this is raising some hackles inside the Justice Department where people are usually focused on putting criminals in prison instead of letting them out. At a news conference, Cole was asked how confident he was that prosecutors across the country would buy into the project.

COLE: Well, I think it's a question of being fair and I think there's a lot of buy-in from every single prosecutor and every single employee in the Justice Department in ensuring fairness.

JOHNSON: Long before any inmates are released, Cole says, the Justice Department will consult the U.S. attorneys who prosecuted those criminals and the judges who sentenced them. President Obama, who's made the issue a priority, will have the final say. Gupta, of the ACLU, says the administration is doing what it can to correct injustice. But she says the real power is in the hands of lawmakers who are considering legislation that would shorten prison sentences across the board for many drug crimes.

GUPTA: It would be a terrible shame for Congress to not enact that reform. That's the kind of reform that will result in a much wider impact on the federal criminal justice system.

JOHNSON: And, she says, resonate far beyond today's historic announcement. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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