Last week, the Department of Justice announced it will be expanding the criteria used to decide which drug offenders are eligible for presidential clemency. This is likely to affect thousands of federal inmates currently incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses. 

In a video posted on the DOJ’s website on Monday, U.S Attorney General Eric Holder said: 

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

 Since the 1980s, our federal prison system has grown by about 800%. Of people currently incarcerated in the federal system, 50% are there for non-violent offenses. To read the ACLU’s report A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses click here. Just last year, the Obama administration was criticized for his limited use of his clemency powers. During his first five years in office, out of 10,233 petitions for a pardoned or commuted sentence, President Obama granted only 40 requests.

This unprecedented initiative will begin immediately and continue over the next two years. The Justice Department said it expects to reassign dozens of lawyers to the understaffed pardons office, to help process the requests.

To comment on the impact of these new clemency guidelines, the ACLU’s Deputy Legal Director and Director of the Center for Justice, Vanita Gupta appeared on PBS News Hour.  While she agreed that this move was likely to positively impact thousands of people currently incarcerated in the federal system, she asserted there is still much to be done to end extreme sentencing and re-calibrate our justice system to be more fair and equitable. 

“The reality is mandatory sentencing has completely ham-strung the federal system. Federal judges have been unable to do their jobs in the system and there is a real need for reform. While we are very eagerly anticipating a very robust screening and scrutinizing process in this clemency announcement today, the reality is we need to actually see action from Congress and see Congress enact the Smarter Sentencing Act to really [kind of] enact the kind of reforms we are seeing take place in red and blue states around the country, reforming mandatory minimum sentencing laws and keeping crime rates on the decline. So that is going to be a necessary part of the effort on criminal justice reform for the next few years”

Vanita Gupta,

Deputy Legal Director of the ACLU and Director of the Center for Justice

To read more about the ACLU’s work to end extreme sentencing click here.

In addition, the ACLU of Maine is excited to welcome Vanita to Maine as our featured speaker at our 26th Annual Louis Scolnik Dinner, this Thursday, May 1st at the Harraseeket Inn, Freeport. Vanita will be speaking more about the ACLU’s work on criminal justice reform both nationally and here in Maine. For more information about our Annual Scolnik Dinner please click here.