The Justice Department this morning announced a new initiative “to encourage qualified federal inmates to petition to have their sentences commuted or reduced by the president of the United States.”

Deputy Attorney General James Cole said in a news conference that the latest effort is part of Attorney General Eric Holder’s “Smart on Crime” initiative, which “was conceived with an eye towards addressing the crisis caused by a vastly overcrowded prison population, and with a goal of redirecting some of the dollars we spend on prisons to prosecutors and law enforcement agents working to keep our streets safer.”

“The fundamental American concept, equal justice under law, requires that our laws be enforced fairly, and not just going forward. It is equally important that we extend this fairness to those who are already serving prison sentences for their crimes,” Cole said.

He noted that last December President Obama commuted the sentences of eight men and women who had each served more than 15 years in prison for crack cocaine offenses under mandatory sentencing guidelines.

“Since that time, the president has indicated that he wants to be able to consider additional, similar applications for commutation of sentence, to restore a degree of fairness and proportionality for deserving individuals,” Cole added. “The department is committed to responding to the president’s directive by finding additional candidates who are similarly situated to those granted clemency last year, and recommending qualified applicants for reduced sentences.”

“We are launching this clemency initiative in order to quickly and effectively identify appropriate candidates. Candidates who have a clean prison record do not present a threat to public safety and were sentenced under out-of-date laws that have since been changed and are no longer seen as appropriate.”

The initiative is not limited to crack laws and those eligible must meet six conditions, he said: be currently serving a federal sentence in prison “and by operation of law, likely would’ve received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense today,” be a nonviolent offender without cartel ties, have served at least 10 years behind bars, “do not have a significant criminal history,” have a good conduct record in prison, and “have no history of violence prior to or during their current term of imprisonment.”

“Identifying worthy candidates within our large prison population will be no easy feat. A good number of inmates will not meet these six criteria,” Cole conceded. “But we are dedicating significant time and resources to ensure that all potentially eligible petitions are reviewed and then processed quickly to ensure timely justice.”

Next week, the Bureau of Prisons will begin notifying inmates of the program. Inmates can then fill out an electronic survey, and those who meet the eligibility requirements “will be offered the assistance of an experienced pro bono attorney in preparing his or her application for clemency.”

These attorneys who have volunteered are calling themselves the Clemency Project 2014.

Cole added that the DOJ is “taking the unusual step of working with the federal Public Defender Service to try to get some of their attorneys detailed to the pardon attorney’s office to support this initiative.”

“Once we have made a preliminary determination that a petition is worthy of serious consideration, we will consult with both the United States attorney’s office and the trial judge that handled the case to get their views on the propriety of granting the application,” he said.

The deputy attorney general stressed that “this clemency initiative should not be understood to minimize the seriousness of our federal criminal law, and is designed first and foremost with public safety in mind. Even low-level offenders cause harm to people through their criminal actions, and many need to be incarcerated.”

“…In the same vein, it’s important to remember that commutations are not pardons. They are not exonerations. They are not expressions of forgiveness. Rather, as the president said, they are, quote, ‘an important step towards restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness.’ He noted that many of these individuals would have already served their time and paid their debt to society had they been sentenced under current law.”