U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder attends a meeting with the My Brother's Keeper Task Force to receive a 90-day report on its progress in the Roosevelt Room of the White House May 30, 2014 in Washington, DC. / Getty Images
WASHINGTON -- An amendment to a House bill approved Friday threatens to derail an Obama administration plan that would potentially make thousands of federal inmates eligible for presidential grants of clemency.
The amendment, adopted as part of the Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations bill which funds the Justice Department, blocks funding for the transfer or re-assignment of personnel who screen clemency applications.
Last month, as part of a plan to reduce the overcrowded federal prison system and rectify disproportionately harsh punishments meted out to non-violent drug offenders, Attorney General Eric Holder said "dozens'' of department lawyers could be assigned to review an anticipated wave of requests under new rules that support broader access to early release.
But Rep. George Holding, R-N.C., who sponsored the amendment adopted early Friday morning, said the clemency program amounted to a "overreach'' of executive power.
"My amendment prevents the administration from abusing their power,'' said Holding, a former U.S. attorney. "With the president and his administration trying to implement wholesale policy changes through pardons of drug offenders, Congress must use the options available in its toolkit, such as this appropriations amendment."
Deputy Attorney General James Cole has said that most eligible applicants would likely be non-violent drug offenders.
Among the new clemency rules outlined by Cole last month were that candidates must have served at least 10 years of their sentences and have no history of violence. Another requirement would restrict eligibility to inmates whose sentences would be substantially lower if convicted of the same offenses today because of changes to the sentencing structure.
Although the clemency screening program was not supposed to require much, if any, additional funding, the amendment also seek's to block the basic pay of attorneys assigned to clemency screening duties.
Holder, who was briefed on the matter Friday, described the action as "absurd,'' a Justice official said.
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