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Crime and punishment

Obama plans to help non-violent drug offenders get out of jail sooner

ANDREW BURTON/Getty Images

The Justice Department will announce later this week new criteria to use when recommending clemency applications to President Obama, a move that Attorney General Eric Holder said could result in "thousands" of applications for reduced sentences.

The change is aimed at reducing prison sentences for those who were convicted years ago under drug laws that no longer carry as harsh of punishments. Yet the new criteria could affect many other non-violent drug offenders who feel they deserve some leniency, too.

"The White House has indicated it wants to consider additional clemency applications, to restore a degree of justice, fairness, and proportionality for deserving individuals who do not pose a threat to public safety," Holder said in a video statement posted to the DOJ's website Monday.

Holder did not elaborate on what the new criteria would entail, saying only that it would make the department's clemency review process more "expansive." And to handle the potential flood of applications, he said the DOJ could "potentially" beef up its staff with dozens of new attorneys.

Obama hasn't used his clemency powers much, though both he and the DOJ have signaled in recent months that they planned to do something to aid non-violent drug offenders. Back in January, New York Deputy Attorney General James Cole said having so many low-level offenders clogging up jails "is not fair, and it harms our criminal justice system."