The US Justice Department is beginning a big initiative to commute the sentences of some inmates serving drug convictions with overly long sentences. Announced this morning, the initiative will allow non-violent inmates who have served at least 10 years of a long drug sentence that would have been shorter if given today to apply for their sentences to be reduced by the president. "Some [defendants], simply because of the operation of sentencing laws on the books at the time, received substantial sentences that are disproportionate to what they would receive today," deputy attorney general James Cole said at a press conference announcing the initiative. "Even the sentencing judges in many of these cases expressed regret at the time at having to impose such harsh sentences."

"The President now has a momentous opportunity."

The Associated Press reports that the Justice Department has identified 23,000 inmates on drug charges who have served over 10 years, though there are several other conditions they must meet in order to qualify for clemency, including having good standing in prison and not having a significant criminal history. Inmates will be told about the initiative and given a survey to see if they might quality. Those who do will be given help from a lawyer, pro bono, to prepare their application. Government lawyers will then review the applications to see who is eligible.

The Justice Department intends for the initiative to piggyback on 2010's Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced disparities for sentences involving crack cocaine. "There are many people in federal prison who were sentenced under the old regime," Cole said, "and who, as a result, will have to spend far more time in prison than they would if sentenced today for exactly the same crime." All drug offenses will be eligible for consideration, however — not just those regarding crack.

The initiative comes at the request of President Obama, who has already been commuting a small number of drug sentences, including eight regarding crack cocaine last year. He wants to extend the opportunity to all inmates as a matter of fairness with regard to the new law.

"Too many people — particularly people of color — have been locked up for far too long for nonviolent offenses," Vanita Gupta, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union said in statement. "The President now has a momentous opportunity to correct these injustices in individual cases." Even so, the ACLU believes that federal legislation will still be needed to enact broader reform of the justice system and deal with unfair sentencing.