The U.S. Department of Justice Wednesday announced its initiative to encourage qualified federal inmates to petition to have their sentences commuted or reduced by the president of the United States.
The initiative stems from the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced disparities in sentences for offenses involving crack cocaine, but that Act does not apply to those who were sentence before its passage in 2010.
Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole said at a press conference, “The fundamental American concept, equal justice under law, requires that our laws be enforced fairly – and not just going forward, but it is equally important that we extend this fairness to those who are already serving prison sentences for their crimes.”
Prisoners who want their sentences reduced or commuted must meet six criteria: (1) inmates who are currently serving a federal sentence in prison and, by operation of law, likely would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense today; (2) are non-violent, low-level offenders without significant ties to large-scale criminal organizations, gangs, or cartels; (3) have served at least 10 years of their sentence; (4) do not have a significant criminal history; (5) have demonstrated good conduct in prison; and (6) have no history of violence prior to or during their current term of imprisonment. The initiative is not limited to crack cocaine offenders.
As part of the initiative, offenders who meet these criteria will be offered the assistance of an experienced pro bono attorney in preparing his or her application for clemency.
Once the DOJ has made a preliminary determination that a petition is worthy of serious consideration, it will consult with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the trial judge that handled the case to get their views on whether to grant the application.
American Bar Association President James R. Silkenat, said in a press release that the ABA welcomed President Barack Obama’s intention to extend clemency to some prisoners who have suffered decades of unequal and unfair disparities in sentencing.
“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. Today’s announcement of the clemency initiative represents months of hard work by the DOJ, members of the ABA and lawyers from other organizations. This clemency initiative is a step forward for equal justice, something the ABA and its members fight for every day,” Sikenat said.
Clemency Project 2014, a working group composed of the Federal Defenders, the American Civil Liberties Union, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Bar Association, and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, as well as individuals active within those organizations, released a statement in support of Cole’s announcement. Clemency Project members will collaborate to recruit and train attorneys on how to screen for prisoners who meet the criteria laid out by the deputy attorney general.
“Our federal sentencing laws have shattered families and wasted millions of dollars,” said Vanita Gupta, ACLU deputy legal director. “Too many people—particularly people of color—have been locked up for far too long for nonviolent offenses. The President now has a momentous opportunity to correct these injustices in individual cases.”
The Smarter Sentencing Act of 2014 looks to focus federal resources on the most serious offenders.