President Obama's plan to commute the sentences of nonviolent drug offenders who were caught up in the disparities in laws governing crack and powder cocaine is lagging, burdened by vague guidelines, lack of Justice Department resources and the unusual asking of advocacy groups to help screen applications, reports Politico. In the year since the Justice Department encouraged inmates to apply for shorter sentences, more than 25,000 have come forward. When Obama announced annual commutations last month, only eight were given. That reflects deeper problems in the government's process for determining which sentences are overly long because of the crack-powder distinction. Obama's Justice Department has yet to make much progress, as inmates anxiously await decisions.
Lawyers are wrestling with the huge flood of applications and struggling to determine which judge-ordered sentences may have been influenced by the crack-powder disparity, amid a three- or even four-tier review process and the fear of releasing a prisoner who might go on to commit a violent crime. “The resources are woefully inadequate to address this number of applications,” one lawyer involved in the process said. “It's an enormous undertaking that was announced with great fanfare and promises being made without much consideration about the resources needed to get the promises fulfilled.” The American Civil Liberties Union, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the American Bar Association formed Clemency Project 2014 and to recruit 1,500 lawyers to handle cases on a pro bono basis. Administration officials insist the groups have no official role.