U.S. to launch clemency effort for low-level drug offenders

WASHINGTON Thu Jan 30, 2014 2:13pm EST

Orange County Deputy Probation Officer Erin Merritt holds a canister of methadone which she found in a former heroin-addict probationer's apartment in Santa Ana, California July 22, 2011. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Orange County Deputy Probation Officer Erin Merritt holds a canister of methadone which she found in a former heroin-addict probationer's apartment in Santa Ana, California July 22, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department plans to launch an effort on Thursday to identify non-violent prison inmates convicted of low-level drug charges who would be good candidates for clemency from President Barack Obama.

The department's No. 2 official, Deputy Attorney General James Cole, plans to lay out details at a legal conference in New York, according to excerpts of his speech released prior to delivery.

In a sign of changing U.S. views about long prison sentences, Obama in December commuted the sentences of eight people after deciding their crack cocaine offenses did not justify their long prison terms. Each had served more than 15 years in prison.

"It is the department's goal to find additional candidates, who are similarly situated to the eight granted clemency last year, and recommend them to the president for clemency consideration," Cole's prepared remarks said. He is scheduled to deliver the speech at 12:40 p.m. ET (1740 GMT).

Candidates for clemency would include inmates who have had clean records in prison, do not present a threat to public safety and are facing excessive sentences, according to the speech.

The U.S. Constitution gives the president power to grant "reprieves and pardons for offences against the United States, except in cases of impeachment."

The Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney advises the president on the merits of specific cases.

(Editing by Howard Goller, Chizu Nomiyama and Meredith Mazzilli)

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