Why is the Obama adminstration changing its policy on clemency for federal drug offenders, and will it amount to much? NPR’s Carrie Johnson discusses those issues in an interview on her network. Johnson says the change happened after the message from reform advocates “reached the ears of Barack Obama at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. … this issue is personal to him in part because the drug laws are enforced in ways that disproportionately hurt minority defendants. And the notion that nonviolent offenders could be locked up for decades he thinks is a civil rights issue and a public safety issue.” The fact that sentencing reforms have been in enacted in some Republican-dominated state gave the Obama administration “some political cover for making these reforms because in the past, many Democrats have been wary of being perceived as weak on crime,” Johnson says.
Organizations like Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers are getting the word out to people eligible to apply for clemency. One question now is how well the Justice Department, dominated by prosecutors, will process all the applications. So far, Obama has granted only 1 out of every 175 petitions for pardons and commutations. That is fewer than Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Clinton and both Presidents Bush. DOJ today announced six criteria for inmates applying for clemency: They likely would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense(s) today; they are non-violent, low-level offenders without significant ties to large scale criminal organizations, gangs or cartels; they have served at least 10 years of their prison sentence; they do not have a significant criminal history; they have demonstrated good conduct in prison; and they have no history of violence prior to or during their current term of imprisonment.