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Administration opens door to clemency grants in some drug cases

It is a fundamental tenet of the American system of justice that everyone should be treated equally under the law. That doesn’t always happen.

Sometimes law enforcement and prosecutors, faced with social or political pressures to reduce crime, seek to skirt the rules they’re required to follow. Sometimes lawmakers enact laws that wind up having the effect of applying the law unequally. In order to protect individual rights, anyone facing criminal charges needs to be working with an experienced defense attorney.

A recent announcement by the Obama administration indicates that the Justice Department appreciates that there’s been an equality gap when it comes to some drug crimes. As a result, the administration announced an initiative this week that holds out the hope that thousands of individuals convicted of low-level drug crime charges could be granted presidential clemency. 

Officials say the action is needed because of an imbalance in punishment that developed specifically in the area of federal drug prosecutions. Laws passed by Congress in the 1980s and 90s established mandatory sentencing rules for drug crimes that resulted in many individuals convicted of first-time offenses facing prison terms as severe as those meted out for career drug felons. In some instances, drug abusers convicted of a first offense found themselves sentenced to life in prison.

Those laws have since been eased and the administration says its announcement about clemency represents its commitment to making sure that the tenet of equal treatment applies not only to future defendants, but also to those already in prison.

The new policy does set eligibility requirements. Those in prison must have served at least 10 years; show that they would have received much lighter sentences if they were convicted under today’s rules; be deemed nonviolent offenders; have no ties to large criminal organizations or significant criminal history; and have a record of good conduct.

Also under the so-called “Clemency Project 2014,” every eligible applicant will be provided free legal counsel if required. Applications for clemency are expected to be accepted starting almost immediately. 

Source: Miami Herald, “Administration Opens Clemency Door for Thousands of Low-level Drug Offenders,” Greg Gordon, McClatchy News, April 23, 2014