President Obama commuted the sentences Wednesday of eight prisoners serving lengthy terms for drug charges, but it was only a fraction of the 6,561 who applied for his help.
In January, the Justice Department announced an ambitious program to recruit lawyers to help drug offenders seek presidential clemency after being jailed under harsh sentencing laws. The move was in line with Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr.’s push to reduce the U.S. prison population, particularly among African Americans serving disproportionally longer sentences for crack cocaine possession.
In April, the department announced fairly restrictive eligibility guidelines. Prisoners must have served at least 10 years, have no violent history and have received a substantially longer sentence than they would have received today.
Some of those who have applied so far may still receive clemency, as the number officially rejected or otherwise processed is only in the hundreds, according to a Justice Department official who was not authorized to speak publicly.
The so-called Clemency Project 2014 group of lawyers trying to help prisoners win clemency is still processing more than 20,000 applications, according to sentencing experts.
“We can expect that until Congress acts particularly to change mandatory minimum sentences, we will not be able to address the problems of overcrowding in federal prisons through clemency,” said Jeremy Haile of The Sentencing Project, a Washington advocacy group. Haile said there are signs the Republican-led Senate may take up changes to the sentencing laws in January.
FOR THE RECORD
Dec. 17, 7:13 p.m.: An earlier version of this article misspelled the first name of Jeremy Haile.
Also on Wednesday, Obama pardoned 12 former prisoners, all of whom have served their sentences, some many years ago. Their offenses included operating a still, counterfeiting, automobile theft and various drug offenses. The pardons will clear their records.