Obama Administration Depends on Pro Bono Lawyers to Deal with Clemency Requests by Non-Violent Offenders

Saturday, March 07, 2015

An attempt by the Obama administration to review the sentences of federal prisoners convicted of non-violent crimes, particularly those involving drugs, has become so flooded with requests that private lawyers have organized to provide pro bono help to the petitioners.


Since the Department of Justice announced the sentencing-review initiative more than a year ago, the administration has received more than 35,000 requests from inmates across the country—about 16% of the federal prison population.


With so many petitions to review, the agency has failed to issue any clemency decisions based on requests filed since the announcement. The eight commutations issued by President Barack Obama within the past year were from applicants who contacted the administration before the initiative was unveiled, according to The Washington Post.


To facilitate the review of thousands of applications, more than 1,000 attorneys at 323 law firms and organizations nationwide have come forward, according to the Post’s Sari Horwitz.


“We have created what very well may be the largest, most ambitious pro-bono effort in the history of the legal profession,” Norman Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, one of four groups providing pro bono assistance, told the newspaper.


The initiative is aimed at reducing the federal prison population, which became swollen in part because of low-level drug offenders being put away under mandatory drug-sentencing laws adopted in the 1980s. That population has grown to about 210,000 inmates, overloading a prison system that is costing taxpayers $6.5 billion per year, reported the Post. That figure eats up 25% of the Justice Department’s budget, requiring funds to be pulled from efforts to battle ongoing threats to public safety, such as drug cartels, human trafficking, fraud, corruption, and violent crime, according to the department’s former deputy attorney general, James M. Cole, when he announced the initiative last year.


Lawyers offering their services for the project are embarking on a mammoth undertaking, according to the Post, given that inmates are not easily accessible for interviews, paper applications have to be manually entered into a database, prosecutors and judges have to be tracked down, and old legal documents—some decades old—have to be unearthed. Additionally, the lawyers doing the work must be trained in how to measure each candidate against specific legal criteria established by the Justice Department.


“Some of these inmates have been in 20 to 25 years,” Marjorie J. Peerce, partner at the Ballard Spahr law firm which is screening clemency applications, pointed out to the Post. “Lawyers have to try to get pre-sentencing reports and sentencing transcripts, and, in some cases, the sentencing proceeding might not have been transcribed. It’s a cumbersome process, and you want to get it right.”


Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act (pdf) in 2010, which did away with the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for possession of crack cocaine and reduced the disparity between convictions for crack and powder cocaine. But with thousands of prisoners still serving sentences under the old sentencing guidelines, the Justice Department decided to embark on the Clemency Project to help those not covered by the law.


In addition to Reimer’s group, the organizations participating in the Clemency Project are the American Bar Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Danny Biederman


To Learn More:

U.S. Clemency Effort, Slow To Start, Will Rely On An Army Of Pro Bono Lawyers (by Sari Horwitz, Washington Post)

Justice Dept. Searching for Crack Prisoners to Release (by Steve Straehley, AllGov)

Obama Administration Wants Review of Commutation Request by Clarence Aaron (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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