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Attorney General Eric Holder speaks at a press conference on April 1, 2014 in New York.
Andrew Burton—Getty Images

The Obama Administration continued its push to reduce the number of prisoners serving long sentences as a result of the nation’s federal drug laws on Monday with an announcement by Attorney General Eric Holder describing new rules that would expand the pool of convicts eligible to apply for presidential clemency.

In a video released by the Department of Justice, Holder said they will expand the existing criteria government attorneys use to consider which offenders may be eligible for clemency. Later this week Deputy Attorney General James Cole will announce the new criteria, which Holder expects will lead thousands to apply to receive reduced sentences.

“This new and improved approach will make the criteria for clemency recommendation more expansive,” Holder said. “This will allow the Department of Justice and the president to consider requests from a larger field of eligible individuals.”

Throughout 2013, the Obama Administration began taking a piecemeal approach to reforming the nation’s drug laws as a part of Obama’s “Smart on Crime” initiative. In late 2013, Obama commuted the sentences of eight crack-cocaine offenders who had been serving lengthy sentences that would have been shortened under updated legislation. And last week, Obama commuted the sentence of another former drug prisoner whose sentence was lengthened as a result of a typo.

Former pardon attorneys and experts have said many of prisoners with similar cases are currently serving lengthy sentences, and Holder said Monday he expects “thousands” of applications for clemency as a result of the expanded criteria. Both the White House and the Justice Department have so far declined to estimate the number of clemencies the new criteria and increase in applications could produce.

In order to keep up with the influx of applications, Holder says the Department of Justice will assign more lawyers to review the applications. “As a society, we pay much too high a price whenever our system fails to deliver the just outcomes necessary to deter and punish crime, to keep us safe, and to ensure that those who have paid their debts have a chance to become productive citizens,” Holder said. “Our expanded clemency application process will aid in this effort. And it will advance the aims of our innovative new Smart on Crime initiative – to strengthen the criminal justice system, promote public safety, and deliver on the promise of equal justice under law.”


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