WASHINGTON — — The U.S Justice Department invited thousands of federal convicts on Wednesday to request their release from prison, a measure that could have an outsized effect in Baltimore, where U.S. prosecutors have worked closely with local authorities.
The Obama administration's plan is intended in part to lessen harsh sentences handed down under laws enacted amid fears about crack in the mid-1980s but rolled back since then. Judges have reduced many prison terms as drug distribution laws changed, but their powers have been limited by mandatory minimum sentencing rules.
As many as 200 inmates from Maryland without violent records could be eligible to ask President Barack Obama for clemency, according to James Wyda, the head of the federal public defender's office in Baltimore.
"Maryland will benefit disproportionately and it deserves to," Wyda said. "The federal courts have stepped in in support of local jurisdictions more so here than they do in other states."
While federal cases involving multiple defendants and violent gangs attract the most attention, Wyda said his office represents a large number of low-level dealers.
U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said the Justice Department plan would help rectify unjust sentences doled out to nonviolent criminals. It's another step toward fixing a racially biased federal sentencing system, he said.
"Flawed sentencing guidelines for drug-related crimes have devastated communities of color in Baltimore and beyond, and it's past time we worked on rehabilitating rather than punishing," he said.
Deputy U.S. Attorney General James M. Cole detailed the plans Wednesday to actively solicit clemency requests from prisoners who meet Justice Department criteria.
"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candidates who have a clean prison record, do not present a threat to public safety, and were sentenced under out-of-date laws that have since been changed and are no longer seen as appropriate," Cole said in remarks released by the Justice Department.
The Justice Department expects thousands of inmates to apply, and plans to beef up the office that handles the requests, but gave no assessment of the number of people likely to receive clemency.
Prisoners will be provided volunteer lawyers free of charge.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, attacked the new clemency program.
"In an unprecedented move to dramatically expand the clemency process for federal drug offenders, President Obama has again demonstrated his blatant disregard for our nation's laws and our system of checks and balances embedded in the U.S. Constitution," Goodlatte said in a statement.
Obama until now has been reluctant to use his clemency powers granted under the Constitution.
But the move is very much in tune with a campaign being waged under the direction of Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to scale back the use of mandatory prison sentences and reduce the prison population — particularly African-American drug offenders serving long sentences for nonviolent crimes.
The clemency program announced Wednesday is not limited to drug crimes, but it is particularly aimed at the thousands of crack cocaine users or dealers sentenced under a particularly tough 1980s law softened by Congress in 2010.
About 7,000 prisoners, by some estimates, would not be incarcerated today if they had been sentenced under the terms of the new law, though not all will meet the criteria announced Wednesday.
To be eligible for clemency, prisoners must have no incidents of violence on their records, both in the commission of the original crime and while inside prison. Candidates also must be free of ties to gangs or large criminal organizations, must not have "a significant criminal history," and must have demonstrated good conduct in prison.
All must have served at least 10 years and be able to demonstrate they would have received substantially less time if convicted under current law.
"For our criminal justice system to be effective, it needs to not only be fair, but it also must be perceived as being fair," Cole said. "Older, stringent punishments that are out of line with sentences imposed under today's laws erode people's confidence in our criminal justice system."
The vast majority of Maryland's drug cases are handled locally, but the number of drug sentences handed down by federal judges in Maryland has risen slightly over the past decade.
In 2002, 178 drug offenders were sentenced in Maryland's federal courts, according to data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission. In 2012, the most recent year for which data are available, the number was 377.
Crack cases made up between one-quarter and one-third of the sentences each year, the data show.
Steven H. Levin, a federal prosecutor in Maryland between 2002 and 2008, said that while some low-level offenders are caught in federal cases, most were involved in violent crimes because that was the office's focus. He also said the requirement that inmates have served at least 10 years narrows the number eligible here.
"This new initiative may not benefit as many prior federal defendants in Maryland as it may seem at first blush," he said.
But Wyda said he is optimistic that the program will give a large number of inmates a chance to benefit. His office is in the process of identifying eligible candidates.
"I admire the administration for focusing on getting these sentences right," Wyda said.
While most of the eligible inmates will likely be serving sentences in crack cases, Wyda said others likely received long sentences because prior convictions counted against them.
Previous initiatives to cut crack sentences have already had a major effect in Maryland. After a 2007 change to the rules in crack cases, judges reduced the sentences of 340 inmates, according to the sentencing commission. Some were released immediately.
Another 155 convicts had their prison terms reduced after the 2010 changes to sentencing laws.
But the effect of those changes was limited because judges could not reduce sentences any further than a mandatory minimum that applied to the case; for crack, those minimums could be triggered by possession of small quantities of drugs.
A 10-year minimum, for example, required a finding that a defendant intended to distribute 50 grams of crack; for powder cocaine, the same sentence was tied to 5 kilograms.
In 2010, Congress increased the amount of crack required to trigger a mandatory minimum, but that provision was not retroactive like other changes under the bill. It is considering another bill to make that change, among others to the way drug sentences are formulated.
Timothy M. Phelps reported this story for Tribune Newspapers.
President Obama will consider clemency for inmates who meet six criteria:
•They would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted today
•They are nonviolent, low-level offenders with no gang ties
•They have been in prison for at least 10 years
• They do not have a significant criminal history
•They have demonstrated good behavior in prison
•They have no history of violence before being locked up or in prison