Clemency changes could reduce El Paso federal drug sentences

Clemency changes could reduce El Paso federal drug sentences
Wednesday, April 23, 2014 - 10:20pm

Thousands of federal drug prisoners could be out of prison sooner than expected.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced new clemency rules Wednesday that could potentially shorten felony drug sentences.

"The Justice Department is committed to recommending as many qualified applicants as possible for reduced sentences," Holder said.

The new rules, effective immediately, would mean more drug offenders are eligible for clemency.

It's part of the Obama administration's push to modify sentencing laws, replacing some hefty mandatory drug punishments with rehabilitation programs and other alternatives.

"There are still too many people in federal prison sentenced under the old regime who, as a result, will have to spend far more time in prison than they would today for exactly the same crime," Holder said. "This is simply not right."

The clemency changes would be open only to prisoners who meet specific conditions. They must be low-level, non-violent offenders, have served at least ten years of their sentence and demonstrated good behavior, and have no significant criminal history.

"Commutations are not pardons, they are not exonerations, they are not expressions of forgiveness," said Deputy Attorney General James Cole.

The new criteria could apply to about one percent of the nation's 200,000 prisoners in federal custody.

1,829 of those inmates are serving time at the La Tuna facility in Anthony near El Paso, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

Local criminal defense attorney Louis Lopez told NewsChannel 9 he welcomes the changes, calling the old rules "archaic."

Lopez, who handles federal drug cases, said many of the sentences in question were likely handed down in cities like El Paso.

"I would imagine you'd see a lot more people along the border being affected, more so than those who are convicted in the interior of the U.S," Lopez said,

Inmates will have to file clemency applications for government lawyers to review.

President Obama gets the final say.

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