By Aruna Viswanatha
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Eight Americans serving time for drug offenses will be allowed to leave prison ahead of schedule next year, making them the first inmates to earn reduced sentences through a broad clemency program announced by the Obama administration earlier this year.
President Barack Obama on Wednesday granted the commutations to men and women from Alabama, Virginia, Iowa and other states who were in prison for possessing crack cocaine or methamphetamine, with the intent to distribute the drugs or related charges.
In April, the U.S. Justice Department laid out new guidelines that allow re-examination of prison terms meted out to inmates who have served at least 10 years of their prison term, are non-violent and were sentenced under laws that have since changed.
New laws and guidelines in recent years have reduced differences in penalties for crack and powder cocaine offenses, giving judges more latitude is imposing sentences and offering prosecutors more discretion in applying tools that would impose mandatory minimum sentences. The changes have meant that many prisoners are serving harsher sentences then they would have received if sentenced today for the same crimes.
"While all eight were properly held accountable for their criminal actions, their punishments did not fit their crimes," Deputy Attorney General James Cole said.
Obama's use of clemency is part of a broader push by the administration to reduce spending on federal prisons by cutting the number of inmates serving time for nonviolent drug crimes.
Also on Wednesday Obama pardoned twelve others who had already served their time, many of whom had served short sentences decades ago.
Illinois resident Roy Norman Auvil, for example, was pardoned after being sentenced to five years' probation in 1964 for "possession of an unregistered distilling apparatus" and "working a distillery on which the required sign is not placed."
(Reporting by Aruna Viswanatha and Roberta Rampton)