Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. delivers a video message about expanding clemency.
Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. delivers a video message about expanding clemency. (Photo: U.S. Department of Justice.)

The U.S. Department of Justice intends to make the clemency process available to more prisoners locked up for drug offenses, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. said today.

An expanded clemency application process will reduce sentencing disparities for federal drug offenders, the attorney general said.

“The White House has indicated it wants to consider additional clemency applications, to restore a degree of justice, fairness and proportionality for deserving individuals who do not pose a threat to public safety,” Holder said in a video message. “The Justice Department is committed to recommending as many qualified applicants as possible for reduced sentences.”

Holder’s statement did not detail which prisoners might benefit from the changes. But he referenced the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, which reduced the sentencing difference between crack and powder cocaine. The law did not apply to drug offenders sentenced before the law took effect.

“But there are still too many people in federal prison who were sentenced under the old regime—and who, as a result, will have to spend far more time in prison than they would if sentenced today for exactly the same crime,” Holder said. “This is simply not right.”

Deputy Attorney General James Cole is expected to announce more details on expanded criteria for clemency later this week.

Holder said the department expects to receive thousands of additional clemency applications.

“We at the Department of Justice will meet this need by assigning potentially dozens of lawyers—with backgrounds in both prosecution and defense—to review applications and provide the rigorous scrutiny that all clemency applications require,” Holder said.

The move comes amid a number of changes as part of a “Smart on Crime” initiative Holder launched in August. Among other reforms, the effort promotes diversion courts and alternatives to incarceration for low-level drug offenders, and it urges investment in reentry programs to reduce recidivism in former prisoners, the department said.

Contact Todd Ruger at truger@alm.com. On Twitter: @ToddRuger.