Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Criminal Law: The Clemency Project Needs Your Help

By Matt Luka

       You may have recently read news reports about the release of federal inmates under the president's clemency power. For much of our country's history, the president's clemency power has been exercised sparingly, often reserved for high-profile cases or political favors. Many in the criminal justice system, however, have come to realize that, due in part to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines and strict mandatory minimums, numerous sentences handed down over the past 30 years are unnecessarily harsh and have had a detrimental effect on society. More than a year ago, the Obama administration made an unprecedented request for clemency petitions for inmates who are currently serving a federal sentence and, by operation of law, likely would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense today.

        Thousands of inmates potentially qualify for relief, but most of these inmates cannot afford an attorney. And public defenders' offices simply do not have the budget or resources to handle such an extensive initiative. So pro bono attorneys are needed. Clemency Project 2014 is a national pro bono effort to recruit and train lawyers on how to screen for eligible inmates and represent eligible inmates in the clemency process.

       Representing a client in this initiative does not require a court appearance or even a face-to-face meeting with the client. The primary responsibility of the attorney is to write a memorandum and collect certain records necessary to support the petition. A checklist of the required records, along with sample memoranda, are available. Our Federal Public Defender for the Middle District of Florida is a terrific proponent of this program and has already prescreened cases and can provide step-by-step instructions on how to prepare a petition. If you are interested in pro bono service, this is a manageable and rewarding program that has a predictable time commitment.

        For those wondering why they should spend their time helping a criminal, in order to even qualify for clemency, an inmate must be a non-violent, low-level offender without a significant criminal history who has served at least 10 years of his or her prison sentence. Most of these inmates are drug offenders who have spent more than a decade in prison. To have a second chance at life would mean everything to the inmates and their families. Also, from a purely economic perspective, it costs our country almost $30,000 a year to house one federal inmate.  You do the math.

        Time is of the essence with this initiative because we cannot be certain whether the next president will continue it. The goal is to have petitions submitted no later than March in order to give the government time to review them before President Obama leaves office.

        You need not have handled criminal cases to be eligible or capable of participating in this work. The training program is available on the Internet, so you can complete the program at any time. Clemency Project 2014 staff and volunteers are available to provide resources and guidance to you as you analyze the cases, and the project has developed a toolkit of templates to streamline the 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. Please contact me if you would like more information. 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 Office of the Federal Public Defender for the Middle District of Florida.