Convicted Low-Level Drug Criminals Should Ask for Early Release: Justice Department

Low-level drug criminals with long mandatory sentences should ask President Obama for early release from prison, the Justice Department advises. Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole asked defense lawyers to help the government locate these prisoners and encourage them to apply for clemency, according to The New York Times.

These prisoners were sentenced under tough laws enacted during the crack epidemic, the article notes. Cole, in remarks to the New York State Bar Association, said, “There are more low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who remain in prison, and who would likely have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of precisely the same offenses today. This is not fair, and it harms our criminal justice system.”

In December, President Obama commuted the sentences of eight federal inmates who had been convicted of crack cocaine offenses. Six of the inmates were sentenced to life in prison. The inmates likely would have received much shorter terms under current drug laws and sentencing rules.

While powder and crack cocaine are two forms of the same drug, until recently, a drug dealer who sold crack cocaine was subject to the same sentence as a dealer who sold 100 times as much powder cocaine.

The Fair Sentencing Act, enacted in 2010, reduced the disparity from 100 to 1 to 18 to 1, for people who committed their crimes after the law took effect. As a result, many defendants who are caught with small amounts of crack are no longer subject to mandatory prison sentences of five to 10 years. Those convicted of crack-cocaine crimes tend to be black, while those convicted of powder-cocaine offenses tend to be white.

A bill under consideration by Congress would make changes to crack cocaine mandatory minimum sentences in the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive.