By Christopher Zoukis
The Clemency Project 2014 -- a group of lawyers and advocates working to provide pro bono assistance to prisoners petitioning President Obama for clemency pursuant to his clemency initiative -- continues to secure results. Led by groups such as the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the American Civil Liberties Union, Clemency Project attorneys are working quickly to get through the backlog of applications for assistance with clemency petitions.
Clemency Project 2014 was launched after Deputy Attorney General James Cole asked the legal profession for pro bono assistance for prisoners filing clemency petitions for consideration by President Obama. The Clemency Project provides free legal assistance to prisoners who meet the following criteria set by the Justice Department:
• Are serving a federal sentence that likely would have been substantially lower under today's law for the same offense;
• Were convicted of a non-violent, low-level offense without ties to large-scale criminal organizations;
• Have served at least 10 years of their sentence;
• Have no significant criminal history;
• Have demonstrated good conduct in prison;
• Have no history of violence before or during their current term of imprisonment.
President Obama granted 98 more commutations on Oct. 27 and another 72 commutations on Nov. 4, bringing his total number of clemency approvals to 944.
"Earlier this month, President Obama granted commutations to 102 federal inmates," said White House Counsel Neil Eggleston in a blog posted on the White House website Oct. 27, 2016. "Today, he granted another 98 commutations, underscoring his commitment to using his clemency authority through the remainder of his time in office. With today's grant, the president has now commuted the sentences of 872 individuals. In this year alone, the president has commuted the sentences of 688 deserving individuals --more than the previous 11 presidents combined -- and the most ever by a president in a single year."
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) advised its members that there are still several thousand prisoner applications to be reviewed for Clemency Project 2014 assistance. Moreover, as of October 2016, reports indicate that there are 11,253 clemency petitions pending for action by the president. With less than 80 days left in Obama's presidency, it remains to be seen whether the backlog will be cleared in time.
Eggleston underscored the need for congressional action on criminal justice reform to supplement President Obama's actions.
"The president's clemency authority is a powerful tool being used to powerful effect, but the individualized nature of the relief granted today also highlights the urgent need for bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation. Only Congress can achieve the broader reforms needed to ensure our federal sentencing system operates more fairly and effectively in the service of the public safety."
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com