DOJ Announces Broadened Clemency Criteria for Drug Offenders

On Monday, the Justice Department announced it would soon be implementing new and broader criteria for drug offenders seeking clemency.

Today, the Justice Department announced the new criteria. It is a welcome sea change:

The Justice Department is encouraging nonviolent federal inmates who have behaved in prison, have no significant criminal history and have already served more than 10 years behind bars to apply for clemency, officials announced Wednesday.

The new criteria:

  • 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 have 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 prior to or during their current term of imprisonment.

Thank you Obama Administration. This is what change looks like. [More...]

To identify the clemency-eligible inmates and process their applications:

To facilitate the thorough and rapid review of the new clemency applications this initiative will likely spur, Deputy Attorney General Cole announced that he issued a department-wide call for attorneys willing to help review new petitions. These attorneys will help assess the petitions to determine which fall within the six stringent standards and merit further consideration. Department lawyers will be temporarily assigned to the Pardon Attorney’s Office.

The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) will notify inmates in the coming days about this initiative and the availability of pro bono lawyers from the newly formed Clemency Project 2014.

Defense lawyers are also mobilizing. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, in conjunction with other groups, has launched Clemency Project 14 and is seeking volunteers.

Executive Director Norman Reiner writes:

"The nation's criminal defense bar has a long tradition of rising to whatever challenges the legal system inflicts upon the accused. Now we have the challenge - and the hope - of restoring freedom to the condemned. I call upon NACDL members to consider volunteering to participate in this important and historic project."

"This project is an historic opportunity to begin the process of remedying decades of cruel and unnecessarily harsh sentencing practices. Even when implemented, this corrective process is partial and insufficient. In the long term, meaningful reform will require legislative action and an entirely new approach to non-violent offenders. That is the only path toward ending this country's infatuation with mass incarceration. But, for many this program offers genuine hope and the prospect of an early return to freedom," Reimer also wrote.

DOJ also announced a change in leadership at the Pardon Attorney's Office. As rumored, Pardon Attorney Ronald Rodgers is out and will be moved to another position:

Deputy Attorney General Cole also announced Deborah Leff, Acting Senior Counselor for Access to Justice, as the new head of the Office of the Pardon Attorney. Ronald Rodgers, who previously held the position, will assist Leff during a transition period and will then take on another role at the department to be announced at a later date.

This clemency initiative is the most welcome change for drug offenders I have seen since Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 which created mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, and the federal sentencing guidelines went into effect in 1987. President Obama deserves a lot of praise for this action.

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