The U.S. Department of Justice announced changes Wednesday to the federal guidelines for clemency. The department says it's part of Attorney General Eric Holder's "Smart on Crime" campaign.
Now, lawyers may file petitions for "non-violent, low-level" inmates with no connections to large criminal organizations. The person must have shown good conduct in prison, and have no violent history prior to or during his or her time in prison.
Tom O'Sullivan with the Boone County Sheriff Department says it's difficult to classify drug crimes as non-violent.
"These people have caused a lot of misery, a lot of heartache and a tremendous burden on society," O'Sullivan said.
Attorney Dan Viets said not all drug offenders fit that bill. He is volunteering to help some inmates process clemency applications. Viets said the lack of distinction between drugs in law, particularly for marijuana, puts non-violent people behind bars.
"The legislature draws these laws with a broad brush," Viets said. "They make no distinction between marijuana and methamphetamine. People who are charged only with marijuana get the same sentences in some cases as people who are charged with major methamphetamine offenses get."
Viets said the circumstances of federal charges can also complicate the situation for those people the Department of Justice wants to grant clemency.
"Their sentence, based on the conduct of the co-conspirators, not necessarily anything they did, but things other people in the alleged conspiracy have done, bring about a much harder sentence for them."
O'Sullivan was less sympathetic for those associated with an alleged drug conspiracy.
"These are all people that made conscious decisions to break the law," O'Sullivan said. "If you're associating with people in the drug trade, you better be ready to take what you got coming."
O'Sullivan said typically, in Boone County, prison is a "last resort" for sentencing on drug-related crimes. Many of the "low-level" dealers are handled by local authorities. Those in federal prison for drug-related crimes are usually not the small-time dealers the Department of Justice has in mind.
O'Sullivan also said the handling and distribution of illegal drugs causes other crimes - such as burglaries, robberies and assault. Viets said that while selling drugs is not a violent act, the prohibition of certain drugs causes people to commit violence.
"There is indeed violence associated with marijuana, not because marijuana causes violence," Viets said. "But the money to be made in the illegal trade, the prohibition, it other words, is what causes the violence.
View the entire Department of Justice's statement on the new clemency guidelines at its website.