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President Obama's Clemency Campaign

Posted by Yancey Ellis | Mar 29, 2016 | 0 Comments

On April 23, 2014, the Obama Administration announced a new clemency initiative to encourage federal prison inmates to have their sentences reduced or commuted by the President. Former Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole announced the program, with Deborah Leff to head the Office of the Pardon Attorney. However, less than two years on the job, Leff resigned from the position, frustrated with the lack of resources to make any progress in the clemency initiative.

The Office of the Pardon Attorney was organized to assist the president in identifying, investigating, and reviewing clemency petitions. The clemency petitions are then sent to the Deputy Attorney General for further review, and recommendation to the president. After the announcement of the initiative, a number of pro bono lawyers, law schools and federal public defenders organized under Clemency Project 2014, to help process and identify appropriate clemency applications under the clemency initiative.

Only qualified inmates would be eligible for clemency under the program. The initiative would prioritize inmate applicants based on the following factors:

  • They would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense today;
  • They are non-violent, low-level offenders without significant ties to gangs or criminal cartels;
  • They have served at least ten years of their prison sentence;
  • They do not have a significant criminal history;
  • They have demonstrated good conduct while in prison; and
  • They have no history of violence before or during imprisonment.

Leff was reportedly frustrated by the lack of resources available to review and process all of the clemency petitions. The initiative is still dealing with a backlog of thousands of pending applications, and as President Obama's final term is winding down, it is unclear whether the petitions can be processed before it automatically comes to an end in January.

The program was expected to be a cornerstone of President Obama's position against harsh and rigid sentencing guidelines. According to the White House, Obama has already commuted the sentences of more individuals than the past five presidents combined. However, the clemency initiative has moved slowly, leaving thousands of federal inmates wondering whether anything will come of their clemency petition.

Even before the petitions made their way to the President's desk, many were thrown out as ineligible for clemency under the initiative. Almost 25,000 of the 34,000 petitions reportedly failed to meet the clemency criteria, with criminal records involving violence or continued gang activity.

In February, former federal prosecutor Robert Zauzmer was announced to take over as acting pardon attorney after Deborah Leff's departure. Zauzmer shares Obama's vision of prison sentencing reform, and has said in a statement that he has “long been troubled by the imposition of disproportionately lengthy sentences, even as long as life imprisonment, that were imposed on low-level drug offenders on the basis of laws and policies that have since been changed.”

Zauzmer still has a heavy workload ahead, with 9,000 clemency petitions still pending. For those thousands of inmates, hearing of the program's backlog and lack of resources will come as little comfort. It is unclear whether Congress will be able to expand funding to the program, or what other avenues the administration may have to speed up the process.

For any federal prisoners who may be eligible for clemency, it is recommended they consult with their attorney, and apply for clemency directly. For inmates who have applied through the Clemency Project 2014, if they have not heard back regarding their application, or if their application was denied, they may still want to contact an attorney to see whether a direct application may be a better option. Contact our federal criminal defense attorneys to see whether you may qualify under Obama's clemency initiative.

About the Author

Yancey Ellis

Yancey is a partner at Harris Carmichael & Ellis, PLLC. He is critical to our firm-wide mission of service to the indigent, upholding the Constitution, and guiding our clients through the criminal justice system. As a Marine Corps JAG reservist, Yancey also assists military service members and veterans with their special legal needs.           

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