Against that backdrop, in a little-noticed comment at a press briefing this month, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, let slip that Mr. Biden was taking a closer look at clemency to help the subgroup who are nonviolent drug offenders.
“He is therefore exploring multiple avenues to provide relief to nonviolent drug offenders, including through the use of his clemency power,” Ms. Psaki said.
In interviews, officials have subsequently confirmed that focus. As a first step, the Justice Department will soon begin requesting clemency petitions for drug offenders who have less than four years left on their sentence, which will then be reviewed by its pardon office, they said.
It is unclear whether the Biden team is leaning toward commuting the sentences of the nonviolent drug offenders to home confinement, reducing the length of their sentences to bring them within the normal window for home confinement or a mix of the two.
The officials said focusing on nonviolent drug offenders, as opposed to other types of criminals, dovetailed with Mr. Biden’s area of comfort on matters of criminal justice reform. In his campaign platform, Mr. Biden had said he pledged to end prison time for drug use alone and instead divert offenders to drug courts and treatment.
Inimai Chettiar, the federal director of the Justice Action Network, called the idea a good start but also questioned the basis for limiting it to some nonviolent drug offenders, saying there was “no scientific evidence” for restricting the help to that category. She suggested another explanation. “Politically, it’s an easier group to start with,” Ms. Chettiar said.
In addition, officials said, the Justice Department is studying other options that could help keep different groups from being forced back into prison. Another idea under consideration is to petition the courts to let some individual inmates stay in home confinement under a “compassionate release” law.