Clemency, Sentencing Reforms Offer Hope to Thousands of Nonviolent Drug Offenders Currently in Prison

Two recent administrative actions could lead to early release for thousands of people currently serving prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Drug laws in the U.S. have grown–some might say mutated–to the point that people can receive lengthy sentences for seemingly minor offenses. Recent actions by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) are aimed at remedying some of the injustices that occur as a result of “mandatory minimum” laws, “three strikes” laws, and others. The DOJ announced in April that it has expanded its criteria for clemency requests, by which inmates may ask the White House to commute their sentences or issue a pardon. The USSC voted in July to approve retroactive sentence reductions for certain drug offenders.

The USSC, in its press release (PDF file) announcing its rule changes, estimates that the current federal prison population exceeds the capacity of the Federal Bureau of Prisons by about thirty-two percent. The DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics determined that, as of the end of 2012, about 6.94 million people were under the supervision of a state or federal adult correctional system, either as inmates, parolees, or probationers. The total prison population at that time was about 2.3 million, with the majority of inmates incarcerated in state prisons and 217,800 in federal prisons. In August 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the DOJ’s “Smart on Crime” program, which acknowledges that levels of incarceration in the U.S. are “ineffective and unsustainable.” The DOJ’s clemency reforms are part of this program, and the USSC’s rule changes also support the program’s goals.

By a unanimous vote on July 18, 2014, the USSC approved retroactive sentencing reductions for federal drug offenses. It had previously voted in April 2014 to reduce base offense levels in the the Drug Sentencing Table, which is found in ยง 2D1.1(c) of the USSC Guidelines Manual, for all future drug cases. The vote in July allows these reductions to apply retroactively, meaning that people who are currently incarcerated for federal drug crimes may petition to have their sentence reduced to fit the revised guidelines. Any reduced sentence approved by a judge cannot take effect until November 1, 2015.

The DOJ’s revised clemency guidelines broaden the criteria for people to request a commutation of their sentence, which would allow them to be released from prison, or a full pardon.It also identifies factors that will give a clemency application priority. The President of the United States has the “Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States.” U.S. Const. Art. II, Sec. 2, Cl. 1. The Office of the Pardon Attorney, part of the DOJ, has faced criticism for a large backlog of clemency applications. The DOJ appointed a new director of that office when it issued the new guidelines. Criteria for priority handling of a clemency application include service of at least ten years of a prison sentence, likelihood of a lesser sentence if convicted today, lack of other significant criminal history, good conduct, and absence of violence while in prison.

A person facing charges for an alleged criminal offense should consult an experienced criminal defense attorney to help them understand their rights and prepare the best possible defense. For over twenty years, criminal defense attorney Michael J. Brown has represented client in west Texas in criminal matters. Contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157 to schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your case.

More Blog Posts:

Texas Man Faces Possible Life Sentence for Marijuana Brownies Under Odd Feature of State Law, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, May 27, 2014
Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Identifies Standards for Determining if Laboratory Technician’s Mishandling of Evidence Renders Evidence False in Drug Cases, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, January 30, 2014
Federal Judge Challenges Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Law After Appeals Court Reverses Him, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, November 25, 2013

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