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May 01, 2014

Justice Department unveils clemency initiative

The Department of Justice (DOJ) launched a clemency initiative April 23 that will encourage qualified federal inmates to petition to have their sentences commuted or reduced as part of the “Smart on Crime” initiative announced last year by U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. during the ABA’s Annual Meeting.

At a news conference, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole explained that the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced unfair disparities in sentences for offenses involving crack cocaine, did not apply to those who were sentenced before enactment of the law. As a result, many federal prisoners sentenced under the old regime will spend far more time in prison that they would if they had been sentenced today for exactly the same crime. The initiative is not limited, however, to crack offenders but is open to prisoners who:

•are currently serving a federal sentence in prison and likely would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense today;

•are non-violent, low-level offenders without significant ties to large-scale criminal organizations, gangs or cartels;

•have served at least 10 years of their sentence;

•do not have a significant criminal history; 

•have demonstrated good conduct in prison; and

•have no history of violence prior to or during their current term of imprisonment.

After an extensive screening process by DOJ attorneys, those who appear to meet the criteria will be offered the assistance of experienced pro bono attorneys in preparing their clemency applications. Cole recognized Clemency Project 2014, an effort established by the ABA Criminal Justice Section and other groups to coordinate pro bono legal assistance to the eligible inmates.

“Let there be no mistake,” Cole said, “this clemency initiative should not be understood to minimize the seriousness of our federal criminal law and is designed, first and foremost, with public safety in mind.” 

The older stringent punishments that are out of line with sentences imposed under today’s law erode people’s confidence in our criminal justice system, Cole said, indicating he is confident that the clemency initiative will go far to promote the most fundamental of American ideals – equal justice under law.

ABA President James R. Silkenat welcomed the department’s action. “Public confidence in the criminal justice system is directly linked to fairly imposed punishments, a principle President Obama and the Department of Justice recognize and appear poised to advance,” he said in a statement. The ABA, which opposes mandatory minimum sentencing, supports retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act and steps that would reduce lengthy sentences for certain people convicted of nonviolent crimes and has long urged broader use of the executive clemency and pardon power.

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