New Justice Department Rules Could See Clemency For Thousands Of Non-Violent Drug Offenders

New rules announced Wednesday by the Justice Department will open up the possibility of clemency for drug-offender federal prisoners, the latest indication that the Obama administration is ever-so-slightly shifting the status quo of federal drug enforcement. Of some 200,000 people in federal prison for drug crimes, it's expected about 2,000 will meet the new eligibility requirements to apply. It was reported earlier this week that the administration would look to make this move, and specifically that President Obama was looking to make up for lost time — his record on presidential pardons is woefully thin.

The effort is in keeping with some of the progressive stances and actions that Obama and his administration have taken on drugs, though it's been a mixed bag so far. Even as the Obama-backed Fair Sentencing Act passed congress in 2010, adjusting the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine convictions to a less (yet still) odious 18:1, the administration has also launched more raids on marijuana dispensaries than that of former President George W. Bush.

The new rules, as suggested by the thin margin of prisoners who'll actually be affected — right around one percent — are pretty strident. Clemency will only be considered for any inmate who meets the following prerequisites:

  • They must be non-violent, low-level offenders without any other major criminal history.
  • They must be serving a prison term which would likely have been shorter if they'd been convicted in 2014, thanks to any reforms put in place between the time of their sentencing and now.
  • They must be at least ten years into their sentence, and have a clean prison record — again, no violent history, either before or during their stay in prison.

The meager 2,000 or so inmates who're expected to qualify could dwindle even more, to boot. It's possible that once the government's lawyers actually start rifling through the files, the number could shrink to the mere hundreds. But just as an 18:1 sentencing disparity between powder and crack is much better, and yet nothing like enough, for however many people get pardoned by this means, this is a truly momentous day.

And it should give a little cheer to opponents of the War on Drugs, too — that Obama's making this move early in his second year could presage more progressive drug policy reform to come. That most politically fraught issue, which someone who never has to run for reelection again might be best-suited to tackle.