Justice Department Aims To Cut Short Racially Biased Drug Sentences

CREDIT: Shutterstock


CREDIT: Shutterstock

The Department of Justice is aiming to cut short the prison terms of some offenders who were handed sentences 100 times more severe because of an outdated racially discriminatory drug disparity, Deputy Attorney General James Cole announced Thursday.

Last month, President Obama shortened the sentences of eight crack offenders punished under the discriminatory regime, using his power under the Constitution to issue pardons (which erase the sentence) and commutations (which cut the sentences short). Cole said Thursday before a New York gathering of lawyers that those commutations were just a “first step” and that it is the Justice Department’s goal to “find additional candidates” and recommend them to the president for clemency.
“There are more low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who remain in prison, and who would likely have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of precisely the same offenses today,” Cole said. “This is not fair, and it harms our criminal justice system.”

The Justice Department is looking for more “non-violent, low-level offenders” without a prior criminal record and potential to restart their life, he said. And the Bureau of Prisons will be advising inmates of the opportunity to apply for commutation.

Cole described the initiative in a speech that lamented the exploding U.S. prison population, driven largely by drug sentences. Echoing remarks by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder this summer as he announced Justice Department plans to curb over-criminalization of drugs and move toward “smarter sentencing,” Cole noted that federal prisons are now operating at 33 percent over capacity, and more than half of the offenders are there for drug offenses.

Cole’s announcement comes on the same day the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would make retroactive the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the ratio between crack cocaine sentences (associated with African Americans) and powder cocaine sentences (associated with whites) from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1. The bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act, which was voted out of committee 13-5, would also roll back draconian mandatory minimum sentences.

Attorney General Holder called for that law’s passage last week. But Cole noted Thursday that “aside from legislation, the President also has the ability to take executive action to positively impact the criminal justice system.” Ironically, President Obama has used the constitutional pardon power less frequently than any other modern president. Before his announcement in December to commute 8 sentences, he had only granted one other commutation in all his years as president, out of 8,700 applications, according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

Among those whose sentences were reduced last month by Obama’s commutations were Reynolds Withersmith, who was sentenced to life without parole on a crack-cocaine conspiracy offense that he committed as a teen, and Stephanie George, who, like many drug offenders serving life without parole, was given the longest sentence of any of her co-defendants, even though the judge who sentenced her under protest lamented that her primary role was as “a girlfriend and bag holder and money holder.”