By Julia Edwards and Aruna Viswanatha
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department laid out new clemency guidelines on Wednesday that are expected to make thousands of drug offenders eligible for a reduction in the sentences they are currently serving.
Under the new guidelines, inmates that were sentenced under laws that have since changed, have served at least 10 years of their sentence and are nonviolent may be re-examined by the Justice Department and suggested to the president for clemency.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who announced the details of the plan, said the most obvious candidates for review were those sentenced before a 2010 law that lowered the terms for crack cocaine possession charges.
"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 at a news conference on Wednesday.
Under U.S. law, the president can reduce sentences or pardon Americans serving sentences for federal crimes, though the power has historically been used on a case-by-case basis.
Should President Barack Obama grant clemency to each new eligible inmate, the move would be an unprecedented use of clemency power. The Justice Department estimates thousands of inmates may be eligible for review. Over eight years in office, president Bush granted 11 sentence commutations; Clinton granted 61.
"Although it's being done through the pardon power, it really is a kind of administrative action to make some of the newer laws retroactive," said Robert Weisberg, a law professor at Stanford University and co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center. "It's almost as if they have to invent their own kind of shadow sentencing guidelines and in effect re-sentence certain people."
Granting clemency to nonviolent drug offenders is part of the Obama administration's strategy to reduce spending on federal prisons by cutting the number of inmates serving time for nonviolent drug crimes.
The clemency review is part of Attorney General Eric Holder's "Smart on Crime" initiative that is reviewing the criminal justice system and looking for ways to make spending on prisons more efficient by focusing on violent offenders.
Some Republicans in Congress say more lenient sentences would reverse a drop in crime seen in recent decades. Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is skeptical of the new clemency guidelines.
"The new guidelines are one thing on paper, but we'll need to see how they actually play out in practice," Grassley said in an email to Reuters. "The bigger point we need to discuss is how Congress can best lower some sentences or time served, and raise other sentences for crimes such as child pornography, terrorism, sexual assault, domestic violence, and various fraud offenses."
Cole also announced the departure of Justice Department Pardon Attorney Ron Rodgers.
Rodgers failed to relay information to the White House on a drug offender's bid for a shorter sentence, a 2012 report from the Department of Justice Inspector General revealed.
Cole said Rodgers' departure was "in the tradition" of Senior Executive Service attorneys in the department and that he had asked to move to another position. Rodgers will be replaced by Acting Senior Counselor for Access to Justice Deborah Leff.
The Justice Department has guaranteed that any inmate who meets the criteria for clemency review will be offered the assistance of a pro bono attorney to prepare his or her application.
(Reporting By Julia Edwards; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)