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By Timothy M. Phelps, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said Monday that the Justice Department will announce new clemency criteria aimed at freeing potentially thousands of prisoners convicted of using crack cocaine.

To prepare for the expected flood of petitions, the Justice Department is planning to assign dozens of new lawyers to its small pardon attorney’s office, Holder said.

Holder made the announcement in his weekly video message, a relatively new feature apparently designed to get the attorney general additional news exposure.

“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. “The Justice Department is committed to recommending as many qualified applicants as possible for reduced sentences.”

In 2010 President Obama signed into law a measure aimed at evening out a long-standing disparity in the sentencing of users of powder cocaine and crack cocaine, with crack cocaine, used disproportionately by African-Americans, drawing significantly higher sentences than powder.

But Congress did not make the law retroactive, leaving thousands of people in prison long after they would have been released under the new law.

In December, Obama commuted the sentences of eight such people, but some advocates said that there are 7,000 more prisoners in the same situation.

AFP Photo/Al Seib

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