Sentencing reform and criminal defense groups launch state-level clemency project

Post Conviction / Sentencing


Clemency Project 2014 ended when Barack Obama left office in January. But several legal groups have launched a clemency project of their own aimed at the states.

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has teamed up with sentencing reform group Families Against Mandatory Minimums on the State Clemency Project, which seeks to recruit, train and support pro bono attorneys who will help state prisoners submit applications for commutations of their sentences. Sentence commutation ends a sentence, but does not erase the conviction as a pardon would.

FAMM and NACDL were both major participants in CP14, a project that sought to reduce sentences for nonviolent, low-level offenders with no significant ties to organized crime. (The ABA Criminal Justice Section was also a major participant.) The project used a large team of pro bono attorneys to select qualified prisoners out of about 36,000 applications, then represent them through the process of applying for a commutation.

The state clemency project builds on that experience, the NACDL press release says. The project will work with interested governors or clemency boards to lay out criteria for commutations and identify prisoners who meet those criteria. Volunteer attorneys, likely drawn from the same state as their clients, will work with their clients to submit petitions. Project staff will work with the state agencies on streamlining the application process and the gathering of supporting information.

In the end, the federal Clemency Project 2014 was involved in 894 commutations, a little more than half of the 1,705 total commutations. Depending on how many states participate, the state project could dwarf those numbers, because states imprison far more people than the federal government does.

One state that will definitely participate is New York, which launched its own clemency project independently in 2015, inspired by the federal version. That program has already resulted in three commutations and could benefit as many as 1,700 people in the state. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has already announced, via a press release, a partnership with the State Clemency Project, in which the project will help with recruiting and training volunteer lawyers.

“Those individuals who have worked hard to rehabilitate themselves and take responsibility for their mistakes deserve a chance to get out of the penalty box,” said FAMM President Kevin Ring in the NACDL press release. “We’re excited to work with NACDL and Governor Cuomo on this important initiative and we look forward to partnering in other states.”

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