When Barack Obama ran for the White House in 2008, federal inmates and their families believed that if he won, miracles would follow. They were convinced that the former law professor and critic of federal mandatory minimum sentences would be liberal with his unfettered constitutional power to free low-level and nonviolent offenders sentenced to decades, even life without parole, behind bars.
Then, for the next five years, criminal lawyers and reformers stood around scratching their heads wondering why Obama held the worst pardon record of any modern president. He commuted one sentence in his first term. When Obama was re-elected in 2012, they hoped he would open the gates. In December, a small door opened. The president commuted the sentences of eight crack offenders, all of whom had served at least 15 years.
On Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder made the announcement that promises big change. Holder said the Department of Justice will adopt a “new and improved” approach with a bigger team “committed to recommending as many qualified applicants as possible for reduced sentences.” Expect the new team to seek out nonviolent, low-level drug offenders with clean prison records.
Sam Morison, a former staffer in the pardon attorney’s office, fears the new clemency project will be a “technical exercise that only an expert in the federal sentencing guidelines can appreciate.”
But Mary Price of Families Against Mandatory Minimums is ecstatic. For years, the Justice Department’s Office of Pardon Attorney has served as an “office of no” that rejected cases of clear sentencing overkill.
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