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Justice Department's new rules would offer clemency to inmates with no violent history

| Wednesday, April 23, 2014, 8:36 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department announced new rules on Wednesday that potentially would make thousands of federal inmates eligible for presidential grants of clemency, including a requirement that candidates must have served at least 10 years of their sentences and have no history of violence.

The six conditions announced by Deputy Attorney General James Cole, which ban inmates with ties to criminal gangs, organized crime groups and drug cartels, are designed to broaden access to early release for nonviolent offenders who were sentenced to long prison terms under mandatory minimum sentencing policies.

Up to 13 percent of the federal prison system's 216,000 inmates have served 10 years or more, but not all would qualify for consideration, based largely on their criminal histories.

Other eligibility requirements include:

• Inmates whose sentences would be substantially lower if convicted of the same offenses today because of changes to the sentencing structure.

• Inmates who have demonstrated good conduct in prison.

• Inmates with no history of violence before or during their term of imprisonment.

Cole also announced the appointment of Deborah Leff as the director of the Pardon Attorney's Office, replacing Ron Rodgers. Cole said Rodgers “expressed a desire to move on” to another assignment at Justice. He said the department was detailing an undisclosed number of lawyers to the office to assist in reviewing the expected wave of new applications.

“Let there be no mistake, this clemency initiative should not be understood to minimize the seriousness of our federal criminal law,” the deputy attorney general said. “Our prosecutors and law enforcement agents worked diligently and honorably to collect evidence and charge these defendants and then fairly and effectively obtained their convictions. ... However, some of them, simply because of the operation of sentencing laws on the books at the time, received substantial sentences that are disproportionate to what they would receive today.”

Although Cole said most eligible applicants probably would be drug offenders, other offenders could qualify if they meet the new requirements, including so-called career criminals.

“There is a difference between quality and quantity (of offenses),” he said.

Advocates for restructuring sentencing policy said the new rules were overdue.

“The doors of the Office of the Pardon Attorney have been closed to petitioners for too long,” said Mary Price, general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “This announcement signals a truly welcome change; the culture of ‘no' that has dominated that office is being transformed.”

Deputy Legal Director Vanita Gupta of the American Civil Liberties Union said “too many ... people of color” have served decades for non-violent offenses.

“Our federal sentencing laws have shattered families and wasted millions of dollars,” Gupta said. “The president now has a momentous opportunity to correct these injustices in individual cases.”

This month, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to reduce sentencing guideline levels applicable to most federal drug offenders.

The commission estimated that 70 percent of federal drug trafficking defendants would qualify for the change, and their sentences would decrease an average of 11 months, or 17 percent, from 62 months to 51.

The National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, which represents more than 5,000 federal prosecutors, has announced its opposition to scaling back mandatory minimum-sentencing policy. The group has not expressed opposition to the administration's clemency proposals.

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