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WASHINGTON — The Justice Department wants low-level drug criminals who were sentenced under tough laws from the days of the crack epidemic to ask the president for early release from prison.

In an unprecedented move, Deputy Attorney General James Cole on Thursday asked defense lawyers to help the government locate prisoners and encourage them to apply for clemency.

The clemency drive is part of the Obama administration’s effort to undo a disparity that flooded the nation’s prison system and disproportionately affected black men.

Offenses involving crack, which was more commonly used in black communities, carried more severe penalties than crimes involving powder cocaine, which was usually favored by affluent white users. In some cases, crack crimes resulted in a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity.

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Congress reduced that disparity in 2010. In December, President Obama commuted the sentences of eight federal inmates who received sentences under the old rules.

“There are more low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who remain in prison, and who would likely have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of precisely the same offenses today,” Cole said at a New York State Bar Association event. “This is not fair, and it harms our criminal-justice system.”

Congress is considering a bill that would make the new sentencing guidelines retroactive, which could make up to 12,000 prisoners eligible for reduced sentences.

That bill would have a quicker, more organized effect than the nationwide push for clemency applications. But lawyers and civil-rights advocates see the Justice Department’s move as an example of Obama using executive authority to advance policy goals, something he pledged during his State of the Union speech this week.

Prison officials also will spread the word among inmates that low-level, nonviolent drug offenders might be eligible to apply for clemency.

About 30,000 inmates — roughly 15 percent of the prison population — were serving crack sentences at the end of 2011, according to federal data.

Attorney General Eric Holder said the prison system accounted for 30 percent of the Justice Department’s budget, which strains the department’s ability to conduct its other law-enforcement missions.

By asking defense lawyers to solicit names for clemency consideration, the Justice Department is setting up a crush of applications to its pardon unit, which already faces a backlog and receives thousands of new requests each year.

“I’m all for addressing the inequities of crack-cocaine sentences,” said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “The best solution is the legislative solution.”

There was strong support in both political parties for changing the sentencing rules in 2010, but the question of whether to apply them to people already in prison was more contentious.

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved a bill that would allow prisoners sentenced under the old rules to ask judges to let them out of prison early. The bill would also reduce some mandatory minimum sentences and give judges more discretion in setting prison terms.

The fate of that bill is not clear.

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