By Matt Apuzzo
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration, in its effort to curtail severe penalties in low-level drug cases, is taking the unprecedented step of encouraging defense lawyers to suggest inmates whom the president might let out of prison early.
Speaking at a New York State Bar Association event Thursday, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole said the Justice Department wanted to send more names to White House for clemency consideration.
“This is where you can help,” he said, in remarks the Justice Department circulated in advance.
Prison officials will also spread the word among inmates that low-level, nonviolent drug offenders might be eligible to apply for clemency.
The clemency drive is part of the administration’s effort to undo sentencing discrepancies that began during the crack epidemic decades ago. Offenses involving crack, which was disproportionately used in black communities, carried more severe penalties than crimes involving powder cocaine, which was usually favored by affluent white users.
In some cases, crack crimes resulted in a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity. The tough sentencing laws led to an 800 percent increase in the number of prisoners in the United States.
Congress eliminated the sentencing disparity in 2010. In December, President Obama commuted the sentences of eight federal inmates who were convicted of crack sentences under the old rules.
“There are more low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who remain in prison, and who would likely have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of precisely the same offenses today,” Mr. Cole said. “This is not fair, and it harms our criminal justice system.”
Testifying on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the Bureau of Prisons now eats up 30 percent of the Justice Department’s budget, which strains the department’s ability to do other law enforcement missions.
An earlier version of this article mis-stated when Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the Bureau of Prisons uses 30 percent of the Justice Department’s budget. He said it on Wednesday, not on Thursday.