Today, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced a set of criteria it would use to review clemency applications as part of its initiative to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to rolling back draconian sentencing policies in the U.S. Those six criteria are, according to a DOJ statement:
They are currently serving a federal sentence in prison and, by operation of law, 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. The announcement was welcomed by civil libertarians interested in sentencing reform. The general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums said it signaled a "truly welcome change" to the "the culture of 'no' that has dominated" the Office of the Pardon Attorney. The president used his clemency power earlier this month to bring his total commutations since taking office to ten, a slower rate than any modern president but the last three Republicans (Reagan and the Bushes).
Attorney General Eric Holder announced in the fifth year of the Obama Administration that it would finally be doing some thinking about sentencing reforms for the criminal justice system. In March, Holder announced the DOJ's intention to lower the federal prison population by 6,500 over the next five years. As Matthew Feeney noted at the time:
The United States, which makes up roughly 5 percent of the world's population, houses about 25 percent of the world's prisoners.
The federal prison system currently has around 216,000 prisoners, a little more than 40 percent of whom are behind bars for for drug offences…
As appalling as the U.S. prison population and drug policies are, the prison population in the U.S. has been falling since 2009 Jacob Sullum noted in March that despite the narrative presented by outlets like The New York Times, libertarian-leaning Republican legislators like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) were certainly leading on sentencing reform as much if not far more than the Obama Administration.
The criteria announced today, which include the unfortunate requirement that someone deemed non-violent and without a significant criminal background still waste ten years in prison before being considered for a clemency, was billed earlier this week by anonymous administration sources as a significant shift in policy. How many years it will end up shaving off for non-violent offenders wasting away in federal prisons will measure how significant the shift actually is for an administration not yet reaching Nixonian mercy.