WASHINGTON — The Justice Department on Wednesday announced a plan to canvass the entire federal prison population for the first time to find inmates who committed low-level crimes and could be released early.
The move, which expands a plan announced in January, is expected to generate thousands, if not tens of thousands, of applications for clemency. It represents the Obama administration’s latest break from the criminal justice policies created to fight drugs.
Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole said Wednesday that the department would consider recommending clemency for nonviolent felons who have served at least 10 years in prison and who would have received a significantly lower prison term if convicted under today’s more lenient sentencing laws.
“These older, stringent punishments that are out of line with sentences imposed under today’s laws erode people’s confidence in our criminal justice system,” Cole said.
The Justice Department could not say how many inmates fit its criteria. But considering the standards and the lengthy clemency review process, civil rights advocates said it was far more likely that the number released early would be in the hundreds rather than the thousands.
The policy change is unlikely to make a sizable dent in the federal prison population of about 216,000 people. And the new policy does not affect the roughly 2 million inmates in state and local prisons.
But it represents the most significant clemency effort since presidents Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter offered amnesty to Vietnam War draft evaders.
And like those efforts, the plan announced Wednesday would be a symbolic break from the past.
It would have been politically unthinkable for the Justice Department to talk about letting inmates convicted of drug crimes out of prison early during the crack cocaine and violent crime epidemic of the 1980s and early 1990s.
“This is more a demonstration of where the administration is trying to take the federal criminal justice system,” said Vanita Gupta, the deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union.
Budget problems in the states have led local governments to reconsider their criminal justice policies, which have created large prison populations that are expensive to house and feed.
Since the late 1970s, the nation’s prison population has ballooned into the world’s largest. About 1 in every 100 adults is locked up.
With crime rates at historic lows, Attorney General Eric Holder has urged that the sentencing system be overhauled, portraying it as a civil rights issue.
He has built an unusual coalition of liberal Democrats and libertarian-minded Republicans in Congress who want to make the nation’s sentencing laws more lenient.
In 2010, Congress unanimously voted to reduce the 100-to-1 disparity between sentences for crack cocaine offenses and those for powdered cocaine, a vestige of the crack epidemic that disproportionately affected black Americans.
Holder is pushing Congress to make that reduction retroactive to inmates already serving sentences.
Cole said the push for clemency was not a substitute for a permanent change to sentencing laws.
“We still think there’s a need for Congress to act,” he said.
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said the announcement did not address larger inequities in the criminal justice system.
“We’ve had a significant rhetorical shift in the war on drugs,” he said, “but we’ve had a moderate policy shift.”
The Justice Department can make recommendations, but only the president can award clemency, which lets a prisoner out of jail early without eliminating a criminal record.
The clemency drive will rely on a partnership among federal prosecutors, public defenders, prison officials, civil rights groups, and prison reform advocates.
Every inmate will receive notice of the opportunity to apply for clemency and of the new guidelines in the coming week.
Prisoners who want to apply are eligible for free legal help from volunteer defense lawyers, the Justice Department said.
The effort is certain to generate a crush of new requests to a pardon office at the Justice Department that has had a backlog of applications for years.
Cole said he would temporarily increase the office staff to handle the new requests.
He also announced a new leader of that office, Deborah Leff, a Justice Department official who has worked to give poor people access to lawyers.