WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is significantly expanding the pool of people eligible to apply for early release from prison, a move that would further chip away at strict sentencing laws involving drug crimes.
The plan, which Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole announced Wednesday, would make thousands of federal inmates eligible for early release, but only a fraction of those would probably make it through the review process before President Barack Obama leaves office.
Cole won praise from civil rights groups in January for encouraging inmates convicted of low-level drug crimes to apply for clemency. The new policy goes even further, making nonviolent felons eligible for clemency if they have served 10 years in prison and would have received a significantly shorter sentence under today’s more lenient laws.
“Older, stringent punishments that are out of line with sentences imposed under today’s laws erode people’s confidence in our criminal justice system,” Cole said. “And I am confident that this initiative will go far to promote the most fundamental of American ideals: equal justice under law.”
Such an announcement would have been politically unthinkable during the crack cocaine and violent crime epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s. But budget problems in the states have led local governments to reconsider their criminal justice policies, which have created large prison populations that are expensive to house and feed.
Attorney General Eric Holder has urged that the sentencing system be overhauled, portraying it as a civil rights issue. He has built an unusual coalition of liberal Democrats and libertarian-minded Republicans in Congress who want to make the nation’s sentencing laws more lenient.
The new policy change is unlikely to make a sizable dent in the prison population, but it represents the most significant effort at large-scale clemency since Presidents Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter offered amnesty to Vietnam War draft evaders.
The Justice Department on Wednesday also announced an overhaul of its pardon office, which must deal with a significant backlog of petitions each year.