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New Clemency Guidelines May Open Door To Early Release Of Thousands Of Federal Prisoners

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MARCH 21:  National Park Service ranger Roger Goldberg walks through the main cell block at Alcatraz Island on March 21, 2013 in San Francisco, California.  The National Park Service marked the 50th anniversary of the closure of the notorius Alcatraz federal penitentiary with an exhibit of newly discovered photos by Los Angeles freelance photographer Leigh Wiener of the prison's final day in 1963. Alcatraz was first a fort and later became an Army disciplinary barracks before being taken over by the Bureau of Prisons in 1934.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MARCH 21: National Park Service ranger Roger Goldberg walks through the main cell block at Alcatraz Island on March 21, 2013 in San Francisco, California. The National Park Service marked the 50th anniversary of the closure of the notorius Alcatraz federal penitentiary with an exhibit of newly discovered photos by Los Angeles freelance photographer Leigh Wiener of the prison's final day in 1963. Alcatraz was first a fort and later became an Army disciplinary barracks before being taken over by the Bureau of Prisons in 1934. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)  (2013 Getty Images)

The Justice Department announced Wednesday that it will begin considering clemency applications from nonviolent federal inmates amid growing concern of prison overcrowding and changing sentencing guidelines.

Deputy Attorney General James Cole made the announcement that federal inmates who have behaved in prison, have no significant criminal history and have already served more than 10 years behind bars will be able to petition for clemency and have pro bono lawyers review their cases. The initiative – coming on the heels of the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013 – seeks even more to amend the severe mandatory sentences imposed for low level drug dealers and users, such as those convicted in crack cocaine cases.

“We are launching this clemency initiative in order to quickly and effectively identify appropriate candidates, candidates who have a clean prison record, do not present a threat to public safety, and were sentenced under out-of-date laws that have since been changed, and are no longer seen as appropriate,” Cole said.

The Obama administration says it's working to correct the legacy of an old sentencing structure that, historically, subjected black convicts 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. The Fair Sentencing Act reduced that disparity and eliminated a five-year mandatory minimum for first-time possession of crack, and officials are now turning their attention to identifying inmates who received sentences under the old guidelines that now appear unduly harsh.

President Barack Obama, who granted only one commutation in his first term, cut short in December the sentences of eight prisoners he said had been locked up too long for drug crimes. The White House has said it's seeking additional good candidates to consider for clemency, though spokesman Jay Carney said Monday that the number of commutations "will depend entirely on the number of worthy candidates."

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Cole stated that clemency candidates will need to be nonviolent offenders without significant criminal histories or close ties to large criminal organizations who have served at least 10 years in prison with records of good conduct and who, if convicted today, would likely face a substantially lower sentence.

While the clemency guidelines will affect all federal prisoners, drug offenders are particularly likely to be affected by the policy shift. Drug offenders make up just over 50 percent of the U.S.’s federal prison population, thanks in large part to the mandatory sentencing laws implemented during the crack boom in the 1980s and early 1990s. Those laws have been blamed by many groups for unfairly targeting the Latino and black population. According to the Washington, D.C.-based prison reform group, the Sentencing Project, the nation’s prison population is made up of 36.5 percent African-Americans and 33.1 percent Latinos.

“Blacks and Latinos are unfairly targeted,” Anthony Papa, an activist and the author of the memoir, “15 Years To Life,” which is the sentence he received under New York’s stringent Rockefeller laws for his first drug conviction. Papa since had his sentence commuted after serving 12 years. “It’s about time that the federal government did something about this.”

In the late 1980s, Papa took an envelope with cocaine from the Bronx to Mt. Vernon, N.Y. There, he walked into a police sting that set him on the road to Sing Sing prison.

“One mistake ruined my life,” he told Fox News Latino. The policy change, he said, will be “a gift from God for some people.”

Cole said that many of the inmates who apply for clemency will not meet all the criteria to be released and there will be system in place to help the newly released prisoners adjust to life back in society.

“A good number of inmates will not meet the six criteria,” Cole said. “But we are dedicating significant time and resources to ensure that all potentially eligible petitions are reviewed and then processed quickly to ensure timely justice.”

Many critics of the move are leery of a mass release of prisoners. The Justice Department tried to assuage those concerns by pointing out that, with a federal prison population of more than 200,000, it will take some time to decide all clemency applications.

Prison reformers, on the other hand, worry that the reforms will either stop after President Obama leaves office or that, after a few years a certain amount of complacency sets in. 

“My big fear is that in the next few years when the numbers imprisoned in incarceration America drop by 10 percent or so, we pat ourselves on the back and then do nothing else,” Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance told Fox News Latino.

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world with 1.5 million currently being held in federal and state penitentiaries combined.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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