Groups’ Clemency Project Pays Off With Obama’s Commutation Streak

President Barack Obama’s decision to use his power of commutation as a form of criminal justice reform has been helped along by Clemency Project 2014, a collaboration between numerous legal and civil liberties groups.

In the waning days of Barack Obama’s presidency, the two-term leader is making his mark on the office in a way very similar to that of other late-term presidents—by using his executive powers to grant clemency to prisoners.

But there are a couple major differences between Obama’s approach and that of his predecessors. First is the scale: Monday’s 231 grants of clemency, including 153 commuted sentences, bring the grand total of his commuted sentences to 1,176, a record for a single president—as well as a single-day record. (Another 148 people have been pardoned by Obama, 78 of them yesterday.) The other notable factor might be just how much influence legal and civil liberties groups have had on many of those commuted sentences.

For example, Clemency Project 2014 has brought together members of the American Civil Liberties Union, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Bar Association, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, as well as federal defenders.

CP14, which offers free legal advice and pro bono assistance to prisoners who have received unusually tough sentences for low-level crimes, has drawn 4,000-plus volunteer lawyers to help scan the cases of tens of thousands of federal prisoners who have asked for assistance. The project has focused on cases involving low-level offenders who have been in prison for more than a decade, have shown good behavior, and whose sentences could be considered harsh by present-day standards.

“There are thousands of people languishing in prisons serving sentences that were handed out over draconian sentencing laws,” CP14 Project Manager Cynthia Roseberry said in an ABA Journal piece last year. “This is a historic opportunity to reverse that.”

A Shift in Approach

It wasn’t initially clear whether Obama would lean on such commutations as president; earlier in his presidency, he was sometimes criticized for pardoning more turkeys than people. Prior to 2011, he had not issued a single commutation.

But last year, as part of a push toward criminal justice reform, the president began to embrace his clemency power, and his grants of clemency quickly outpaced most of his predecessors. Now, he’s miles ahead of them. More than half of all commutations by President Obama were helped along by CP14.

Roseberry, responding to the president’s actions on Monday, expressed hope that the momentum would continue in the weeks before Obama hands the White House to Donald Trump.

“This holiday season I look at the extraordinary achievements of Clemency Project 2014, the amazing contributions of thousands of volunteer lawyers as well as the numerous participating organizations, the generosity of the Project’s supporters, and the life- and community-changing actions of the President, and I am humbled,” she said in a news release. “There is still one month remaining, and many pending petitions awaiting action, for the President to continue and accelerate this important work. I trust he will do so.”

(Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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