Federal Clemency Initiative

By: Courtney Rudy

The Department of Justice in conjunction with the President created The Clemency Initiative, which encourages federal inmates to petition to have their sentences commuted or reduced.[1]  The group, “The Clemency Project 2014,” assists prisoners who apply for this clemency initiative.  Article II section 2 of the U.S. Constitution grants the President the power of executive clemency.  The presidential power only extends to federal criminal offenses.  Executive clemency comes in the form of pardons, commutation of sentence, remission of fine or restitution, or reprieve.  Requests for executive clemency for federal offenses are first sent to the Pardon Attorney who reviews the petition and prepares a recommendation for the President.[2]  The Deputy Attorney General signs the final disposition for each application.  The Office of the Pardon Attorney then prepares the documents the President signs when he grants an executive clemency and notifies all applicants of the President’s clemency decisions.[3]

Deputy Attorney General James Cole announced the Clemency Initiative on April 23, 2014.  He stated that the Clemency Initiative was created to make the criminal justice system effective, fair, and to restore people’s confidence in the system.[4]  The initiative was specifically created for federal prisoners who, if sentenced today under current sentencing laws and polices, would likely have received a substantially lower sentence.[5]  The Office of the Pardon Attorney and the Federal Bureau of Prisons are working together on this initiative.  Another major source of assistance comes for a non-government affiliated organization: The Clemency Project 2014.[6]

To apply for the Clemency Initiative, federal prisoners can fill out an Executive Clemency Survey through the TRULINCS Survey Service.[7]  If an inmate does not have access to the Bureau of Prisons TRULINCS system they will be provided with a paper version of the executive clemency survey. [8]  To qualify for the Clemency Initiative, inmates have to meet all six of the following requirements:

  1. They are currently serving a federal sentence in prison, and by operation of law, would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense(s) today;
  2. They are a non-violent, low-level offender without significant ties to large scale criminal organizations, gangs, or cartels;
  3. The have served at least 10 years of their prison sentence;
  4. They do not have a significant criminal history;
  5. They have demonstrated good conduct in prison; and
  6. They have no history of violence prior to or during their current term of imprisonment.

The Clemency Project 2014 will contact all inmates who fill out the executive clemency survey to let the inmates know if they met the criteria.  If the criteria are met, the inmate will be provided an attorney through the Clemency Project 2014.

The Clemency Project 2014 is a non-government affiliated organization created shortly after the Deputy Attorney General announced the Clemency Initiative.  The organization is mainly composed of members from the American Bar Association, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Federal Defenders, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Families Against Mandatory Minimums.  Individual attorneys, activists, and law school clinic students also participate.  All Clemency Project 2014 attorneys provide their services pro bono, ensuring that the federal prisoners incur no charges.  The services the attorneys provide are screening the prisoners’ applications and representing or finding representation for prisoners who qualify.  On October 31, 2014, the Clemency Project 2014 announced that 25,425 federal prisoners have submitted application for consideration, 4,864 applications are currently under attorney review, 5,024 applications contained a sentence of less than ten years disqualifying the applicant, and more than 1,500 attorneys have volunteered to take pro bono cases.[9]

You may be surprised that federal public defenders and court appointed attorneys are not a party of the aforementioned group of individuals involved.  They are not involved as explained in a memo from the Administrative Offices of the United States Courts issued on July 31, 2014.  The Memo states that prisoners are not constitutionally guaranteed legal representation in clemency suits, meaning that the government cannot pay the attorneys to provide representation.  The memo also states that although federal public defenders cannot provide representation in clemency proceeding, they are still able to assist with screening clemency applications if it is on a fully reimbursed basis.

Since federal public defenders were prisoners’ main resource for legal issues and it has recently been decided that they are not able to provide representation in clemency proceedings, the Clemency Project 2014 is always looking for volunteers to assist with the large amount of cases.  The Clemency Project 2014 provides online training, resource materials, a panel of expert resource counsel, and a screening committee.  To find out more about how to become a volunteer, contact volunteer@clemencyproject2014.org.

[1] USDOJ: Office of the Pardon Attorney: New Clemency Initiative.” USDOJ: Office of the Pardon Attorney: New Clemency Initiative. Accessed October 10, 2014. http://www.justice.gov/pardon/new-clemency-initiative.html.

[2] Current Pardon Attorney is Deborah Leff.

[3] Current Deputy Attorney General is James Cole. USDOJ: Office of the Pardon Attorney: About the Office.” USDOJ: Office of the Pardon Attorney: About the Office. Accessed October 10, 2014. http://www.justice.gov/pardon/about-pardon.html.

[4] “For our criminal justice system to be effective it needs to not only be fair; but it also must be perceived as being fair. These older, stringent punishments that are out of line with sentences imposed under today’s laws erode people’s confidence in our criminal justice system. I am confident that this initiative will go far to promote the most fundamental of American ideals – equal justice under law.” Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole
Press Conference Announcing the Clemency Initiative
Washington, D.C.
April 23, 2014

[5] “NACDL.” Clemency Project Overview and FAQs. Accessed October 10, 2014. http://www.nacdl.org/clemencyproject/

[6] USDOJ: Office of the Pardon Attorney: New Clemency Initiative.” USDOJ: Office of the Pardon Attorney: New Clemency Initiative. Accessed October 10, 2014. http://www.justice.gov/pardon/new-clemency-initiative.html.

[7] TRULINCS is an electronic messaging system run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. For .05 a minute inmates can sent electronic messages to approved recipients, which are then reviewed by correctional staff and forwarded to a 3rd party site. Inmates pay for this service by accessing their inmate trust fund account. https://www.publicknowledge.org/news-blog/blogs/the-price-of-communicating-from-behind-bars

[8] “NACDL.” Clemency Project Overview and FAQs. Accessed October 10, 2014. http://www.nacdl.org/clemencyproject/

[9] “Clemency Project 2014.” Clemency Project 2014. Accessed October 10, 2014. https://www.clemencyproject2014.org.

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