Federal Clemency Drive Off To Slow Start: 30,000 Applications, 2 Granted


A U.S. Justice Department push to shorten long drug sentences via President Obama’s clemency powers is off to a slow start, USA Today reports. Obama has shortened terms of just two of 30,000 inmates seeking shorter sentences through a group of volunteer attorneys. The year-old initiative has been hampered by the cases’ complexity and questions about the eligibility criteria, which may be too strict to help most inmates. The result is a system that appears more backlogged than it was when the initiative began. “The criteria basically suggest that a whole bunch of good citizens who committed one little mistake got significantly more than 10 years in prison, and fortunately that’s pretty rare,” said Johanna Markind, formerly of DOJ’s Office of Pardon Attorney. “I think they’ve kind of belatedly realized that … those perfect cases they think are there don’t really exist…for all the sound and fury about the commutations, the clemency initiative has only come up with a handful of cases that fit” the criteria.

The initiative was intended to help inmates who would have received shorter prison terms had they been sentenced today. It applies mostly to drug offenders after Congress shortened sentences for crack cocaine in 2010. To be eligible, inmates must have already served 10 years of their sentence. Last year, a record 6,561 federal prisoners, three times the usual number, filed petitions with the Office of Pardon Attorney, which advises the president on clemency requests for clemency. More than 30,000 inmates applied for representation through the Clemency Project 2014, a consortium of lawyers who have volunteered to help eligible inmates through the often complicated and time-consuming process. Thirteen months later, those lawyers have submitted just 31 petitions. Obama has used his pardon power to shorten the sentences of 43, but most of those cases predate the clemency initiative. Over six years, Obama has granted just 0.2 percent of the commutation petitions submitted.

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