May 12, 2014
In April, the Obama Administration requested the Department of Justice (DOJ) amend rules for soliciting additional commutation and pardon requests. Revamping clemency guidelines is a step towards repairing an antiquated criminal justice system which has precipitated broken families and ballooned the Federal Bureau of Prison’s (BOP) budget to nearly $7 billion.
Shortly after President Obama’s request, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that a new program would expand the field of eligible individuals. About a week later, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole specifically enumerated six conditions that must be met by federal inmates seeking early release:
- inmates who 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 today;
- are non-violent, low-level offenders without significant ties to large-scale criminal organizations, gangs, or cartels;
- have served at least 10 years of their sentence;
- do not have a significant criminal history;
- have demonstrated good conduct in prison; and
- have no history of violence prior to or during their current term of imprisonment.
(On Westlaw at 2014 WLNR 10902968)
In accordance with the new clemency project, BOP will provide pro bono legal help to aid in the identification of appropriate clemency petitions. Inmates will also have access to an electronic survey to help lawyers and the DOJ screen petitions for the Office of Pardon Attorney.
The DOJ press releases can be found on Westlaw in the Justice Department Documents collection on Westlaw. Contact a Westlaw Reference Attorney for help setting up alerts.
In addition to the new clemency criteria, Attorney General Holder is pressing Congress to pass the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2014 (2013 CONG US S 1410). The Act is an attempt to address draconian prison sentences specifically involving non-violent, low-level drug offenders. Attacking mandatory minimum sentencing established during the cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, the Act seeks to cut minimum sentences in half for certain drug crimes. However, not all agree such a law should be enacted. In a letter to Holder, the National Association of Assistance U.S. Attorneys stated, “we consider the current federal mandatory minimum sentence framework as well-constructed and well worth preserving.” The rationale behind preserving the framework is the ability to leverage sentencing to gain cooperation from defendants, presumably leading to arrests of high-level offenders.