Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Criminal Law: Clemency Project 2014 Needs Your Help

By Matt Luka

Clemency Project 2014 is a national pro bono program helping federal prisoners obtain early release from unfairly long sentences, and the program needs your help. After decades of extremely harsh sentences, the Department of Justice announced an initiative to award clemency to deserving federal inmates. In asking the legal profession to provide pro bono assistance to federal prisoners who would likely have received a shorter sentence if they had been sentenced today, Deputy Attorney General James Cole said, “For our criminal justice system to be effective, it needs to not only be fair, but it also must be perceived as being fair. Older, stringent punishments that are out of line with sentences imposed under today’s laws erode people’s confidence in our criminal justice system, and I am confident that this initiative will go far to promote the most fundamental of American ideals ― equal justice under law.” 

Under the new initiative, the Department of Justice will prioritize clemency applications from inmates who meet all of the following factors:
  • They 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(s) today;
  • They are non-violent, low-level offenders without significant ties to large-scale criminal organizations, gangs, or cartels;
  • They served at least 10 years of their prison sentence;
  • They do not have a significant criminal history;
  • They have demonstrated good conduct in prison; and
  • They have no history of violence before or during their current term of imprisonment.
The Bureau of Prisons will notify inmates of this initiative and provide interested inmates with an electronic survey that will help pro bono lawyers and the Justice Department screen the petitions. The Justice Department has asked all 93 United States Attorneys for assistance in identifying meritorious candidates. Thousands of federal inmates have already sought assistance. This is an unprecedented opportunity to restore the hope of freedom for many, but a significant number of lawyers are needed to provide this legal assistance. 

Clemency Project 2014 is a national pro bono effort with a working group made up of lawyers and advocates, including the American Bar Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Federal Public and Community Defenders, and lawyers within those groups. CP 2014 members have collaborated to recruit and train lawyers on how to screen for eligible inmates and represent those inmates in the clemency process. For those attorneys who currently serve as members in good standing on a Criminal Justice Act Panel, you need not complete the training if you can provide a copy of your CJA appointment letter. But you do not need to have handled criminal cases to be eligible and capable of participating in this work. The training program is available on the Internet, so you can complete the five-hour program on any computer. CP 2014 staff and volunteers are available to provide resource and guidance to you as you analyze the cases, and the project has developed a toolkit of templates to streamline the process. To volunteer for this important project, please visit the Clemency Project 2014 website at www.clemencyproject2014.org, or email volunteer@clemencyproject2014.org. You can also volunteer at clemencyproject@nacdl.org or contact the Federal Public Defenders Office for the Middle District of Florida.