The Obama administration’s “Clemency Initiative 2014,” a highly-touted program designed to grant clemency to non-violent offenders and other federal prisoners, has yet to make a substantial impact on the exploding federal prison population. While some 16 percent of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ 218,000 prisoners have applied for clemency, less than three dozen prisoners have received some form of clemency.
The slow pace of the Justice Department’s efforts has not only distressed eligible prisoners and their families, it has also frustrated many prisoner advocates, who hoped that the initiative would help remedy decades of draconian sentencing practices in the federal system. Noting that there are thousands of prisoners eligible even under somewhat narrow guidelines, law professor Mark Osler at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota said, “The injustice will be if this [Obama] administration ends with them in prison.” He added, “This is one of the major justice issues of our time.”
Marjorie J. Peerce, one of the many lawyers donating pro bono time screening applicants for the project, noted that federal drug policies have had a disproportionate effect on minority communities. “People were going to jail for decades because they were drug addicts selling a little bit of crack. There was such a disparity, and it was disproportionately affecting minorities.”
Many involved in the project attribute the lack of relief for prisoners to the sheer size of the Initiative. Norman L. Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, says the Clemency Initiative was designed to use pro bono lawyers to sift through the thousands of applications to identify eligible candidates, who then forward them to the Office of the Pardon Attorney. Some 1000 attorneys at 323 law firms are involved, but the project involves several tiers of review before an application makes it anywhere near the President. Reimer said, “We’ve got a lot of work to do on this, but we’re determined to do it. We will find everyone who may qualify and complete that by sometime early next year.”
Candidates for clemency must meet a long list of criteria to be considered: They must have served at least 10 years of their sentence, no significant criminal history, no connections to gangs or cartels or organized crime, and must be able to show that they would have received a “substantially lower sentence” if convicted of the same offense today, i.e., with the benefit of recent adjustments in the federal drug sentencing scheme.
This article recently appeared in Prison Legal News in September 2016