Susan Walsh, Associated Press
Deputy Attorney General James Cole gestures during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, Wednesday, April 23, 2014.

WASHINGTON — More than 3,300 federal inmates have applied since April to have their prison sentences cut short under a new Justice Department clemency initiative, according to data provided to The Associated Press.

That figure represents nearly five times the number of inmates, 702, who applied for sentence commutations during the same period last year, the department said.

The surge of petitions came in the months after the Justice Department broadened the criteria for inmates seeking clemency. The goal of the new cost-cutting initiative, officials have said, is to reduce the nation's bulging prison population and grant leniency to nonviolent drug offenders sentenced to double-digit terms at the height of the crusade in the 1980s against crack cocaine.

The clemency effort is not limited to drug offenders, who comprise nearly half of the roughly 216,000 federal prisoners, but its half-dozen criteria make clear that that is the target population.

To be eligible, inmates must have already been behind bars for at least 10 years, have a nonviolent history, have no major criminal convictions, have a good behavior record in prison, and be serving a sentence that, if imposed today, would be substantially shorter.

Officials had anticipated receiving thousands of additional applications, though the expectation has been that many of those seeking commutation would not meet the necessary criteria.

The Clemency Project 2014, a coalition of defense lawyer groups and prisoner advocates, said this week that more than 20,000 federal prisoners have returned surveys seeking to have a lawyer during the clemency process. That number includes some of the inmates who have already petitioned the Justice Department for clemency, the department said.

None of the petitions have yet been forwarded to President Barack Obama for his approval, though lawyers are in the process of reviewing the applications to see which ones have merit. It's not clear how many of the petitions that have been received will fit the criteria.

The clemency work is part of a broader Justice Department effort to trim prison costs and also ease some of what Attorney General Eric Holder has described as inequities in the country's criminal justice system. The Obama administration has endorsed a decision by a federal sentencing panel to lower the guideline ranges for drug offenders, a move that could lead to early prison release for tens of thousands of inmates.

Vanita Gupta, the deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the Justice Department appears to have embraced the idea of a rigorous clemency process after years of relative inactivity. President Barack Obama granted only one commutation during his first term. She called the clemency announcement historic and unprecedented, even though no one knows many inmates will ultimately be affected.

"I think that the public kind of perceived that announcement (in April) as also an acknowledgment that the clemency process needs to be more robust than it has been," she said.

But, Gupta also noted, "The proof of that will be seen in which commutations are granted and which ones aren't."

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