An Obama administration initiative to encourage nonviolent drug offenders in federal prison to seek clemency is likely to trigger tens of thousands of petitions. Clemency is the act by an executive member of government of extending mercy to a convicted individual. In the United States, the pardon power for federal crimes is granted to the President under Article II, Section 2 of the United States Constitution. Obama’s initiative was created with the purpose to reduce the prison population and to end disparities in drug sentencing. Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole stated in a news conference, “for our criminal justice system to be effective, it needs to not only be fair but it also must be perceived as being fair.” So what type of criteria must an inmate meet before they are applicable for consideration?
Cole announced during a news conference in Washington that the Department of Justice will prioritize clemency applications for federal inmates who meet a specific six criteria. Applicants who are seeking clemency will have to have served at least 10 years of their sentence, as well as demonstrated good conduct while they were in prison. Applicants also must show that they do not have a significant criminal history, they have no history of violence prior to or during their current term of imprisonment, and they are nonviolent, low-level offenders without significant ties to large-scale criminal organizations, gangs, or cartels. Lastly, the applicant must show that they would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted under existing law.
The Justice Department is planning to send surveys to all federal inmates to start identifying applicants. Attorneys throughout the country are also being asked to help in selecting meritorious clemency candidates. Once the inmates complete these surveys, they will be sent to an umbrella organization called Clemency Project 2014. The organization will sift through the forms to find the ones that appear to meet the new criteria. Those that meet the criteria will be offered pro bono lawyers to help them prepare their clemency applications.
In December, President Obama commuted the sentences of eight individuals whom he maintained would have already paid their debt to society of they had been sentenced under current law. Since that time, Obama has said he wants to consider more applications for clemency from inmates who meet the new criteria. Those impacted the most by clemency efforts are those inmates serving lengthy prison terms for minor drug offenses due to the federal sentencing requirements. Although the Department of Justice has not released the number of inmates who may qualify for clemency through this initiative, the United States Bureau of Prisons has estimated that 98,538 prisoners are serving time for drug offenses. President Obama’s initiative is exposing roughly one half of all federal inmates to the possibility of clemency.