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May 14, 2014

Prisoners hope Obama program will mean freedom

Prisoners hopeful with new clemency programfor drug offenders

INDIANAPOLIS – Within days of Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement of a new clemency program for drug offenders, Monica Foster started getting letters and calls for help.

Foster, the chief federal public defender in the Southern District of Indiana, assembled a team to vet a wave of requests from inmates in the prison in Terre Haute and elsewhere.

“We expect to be deluged,” Foster said of the initiative, which has given hope to inmates sent to prison under tough federal drug laws.

One attorney already has assembled a list of 300 inmates who may qualify for clemency under criteria issued by the U.S. Justice Department. And the team has started to dig into the case of a 46-year-old prisoner who’s been behind bars since he was 19 and caught selling crack cocaine.

Foster and her staff welcome the work.

“This is a huge milestone in justice,” she said. “I’ve been practicing law for 33 years, and before this attorney general, all we heard was ‘tough on crime, tough on crime, tough on crime.’”

In late April, Holder announced the Justice Department is significantly expanding the criteria it uses to consider when to recommend clemency for President Obama’s review.

The push is part of the Obama administration’s policy to relieve overcrowding in federal prisons through what it calls a “Smart on Crime” initiative.

It also seeks to remedy what Holder has called antiquated and unfair penalties that were locked into federal law in the 1980s, at the height of the nation’s war on drugs.

The new clemency rules are designed for non-violent drug offenders who’ve served at least a decade in prison and who, if sentenced under today’s laws, would qualify for a lower sentence.

The program especially targets those sent to prison under mandatory crack-cocaine penalties rolled back by the federal Fair Sentencing Act in 2010. That law aimed to reduce the vast difference in sentencing for convictions for crack and powder cocaine – a gap that disproportionately affected black offenders. But the law wasn’t retroactive.

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