Pubdate: Thu, 18 Dec 2014
Source: San Diego Union Tribune (CA)
Copyright: 2014 Associated Press
Note: Seldom prints LTEs from outside it's circulation area.
Author: Nedra Pickler, Associated Press


Action Addresses Outdated Guidelines, Uneven Penalties

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama on Wednesday cut short 
prison time for eight drug convicts as part of his new initiative to 
reduce harsh sentences under outdated guidelines, a step that could 
lead to a vast expansion of presidential clemency in his final two 
years in office.

The president also is pardoning 12 convicts for a variety of 
offenses. But the commutations are particularly significant because 
they are the first issued under guidelines announced this year 
designed to cut costs by reducing the nation's bulging prison 
population and grant leniency to nonviolent drug offenders sentenced 
to double-digit terms.

A pardon forgives a crime without erasing the conviction, typically 
after the sentence has been served. A commutation leaves the 
conviction and ends the punishment.

The White House said the eight new commutations Obama granted were 
for prisoners who likely would receive a substantially lower sentence 
today and would have already served their time. For example, they 
include Barbara Scrivner, who was sentenced to 30 years in 1995 when 
she was 27 years old for a minor role in her husband's meth ring. 
Obama ordered her sentence to expire June 12, while others will 
expire April 15.

Administration officials say they expect Obama to grant more clemency 
petitions in his final two years in office under the changed policy 
he ordered from the Justice Department. The White House said 6,561 
people already have applied in the past year, compared to 2,370 the 
year before.

"I think there is an awareness out there that this president is 
interested in granting clemency on these kinds of matters," White 
House counsel Neil Eggleston said in an interview.

The clemency policy changes aren't limited to drug offenders, who 
comprise about half of the roughly 216,000 federal prisoners, but the 
criteria makes it clear they are the main target.

To be eligible, inmates must have already been behind bars for at 
least 10 years, have a nonviolent history, have no major criminal 
convictions, have a good behavior record in prison, and be serving a 
sentence that, if imposed today, would be substantially shorter than 
what they were given at the time.

The old sentencing guidelines subjected tens of thousands of blacks 
to long prison terms for crack-cocaine convictions while giving far 
more lenient sentences to those caught with powder who were more 
likely to be white.

It was enacted in 1986 when crack-cocaine use was rampant and 
considered a particularly violent drug. Under that law, a person 
convicted of possessing five grams of crack cocaine got the same 
mandatory prison term as someone with 500 grams - 100 times - of 
powder cocaine.

The president signed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010 to cut penalties 
for crack-cocaine offenses in order to reduce the disparity. But the 
act addressed only new cases, not old ones.

In his first term, Obama commuted just one drug sentence and pardoned 
39 people, causing prisoner advocates to accuse him of being too 
stingy with his power. Obama aides said it was because he wasn't 
receiving more positive recommendations from the Office of the Pardon 
Attorney so he directed the Justice Department to improve its 
clemency recommendation process and recruit more applications from convicts.

Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who in April announced the 
clemency policy changes, said the sentence commutations reflect a 
"commitment to bring fairness to our criminal justice system."

"While all eight were properly held accountable for their criminal 
actions, their punishments did not fit their crimes, and sentencing 
laws and policies have since been updated to ensure more fairness for 
low-level offenders," he said in a statement.
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