Clemency Project Overview and FAQs

Clemency Project 2014 launched in January after Deputy Attorney General James Cole asked the legal profession to provide pro bono assistance to federal prisoners who would likely have received a shorter sentenced if they'd been sentenced today. Clemency Project 2014 members are currently collaborating to recruit and train attorneys on how to screen for prisoners who meet the criteria laid out by the deputy attorney general. Clemency Project 2014 is composed of the Federal Defenders, the American Civil Liberties Union, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Bar Association, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, as well as individuals active within those organizations and other lawyers wishing to participate in this volunteer effort. 

Lawyers wishing to volunteer may write to clemencyproject@nacdl.org.  Clemency Project 2014 will acknowledge receipt of emails of interest and will notify  all volunteers of the date for the training program.

Inmates seeking representation by pro bono attorneys provided by Clemency Project 2014 attorneys  should complete the online Trulinks survey provided by the Bureau of Prisons or the paper survey that will be made available by case managers and be sure to check the box indicating that they wish to have.

Frequently Asked Questions about the Justice Department’s New Clemency Initiative

What is the Justice Department’s new clemency initiative?
Deputy Attorney General James Cole announced a set of criteria the Justice Department and White House will use when considering clemency petitions from federal prisoners. The criteria will help the Justice Department identify federal prisoners who, if sentenced today under current sentencing laws and policies, would likely have received a substantially lower sentence. He also announced steps he is taking to reinvigorate the Office of the Pardon Attorney, including naming a new Pardon Attorney and seeking additional staff. Read Deputy Attorney James Cole’s speech announcing the initiative and outlining the criteria here.

What are the criteria?
According to the criteria released by the Justice Department, prisoners must be:

  • serving a federal sentence;
  • serving a sentence that, if imposed today, would be substantially shorter;
  • have a non-violent history with no significant ties to organized crime, gangs or cartels;
  • have served at least 10 years;
  • have no significant prior convictions; and
  • have demonstrated good conduct in prison.

What is Clemency Project 2014?
​Clemency Project 2014 – a working group composed of lawyers and advocates including the Federal Defenders, the American Civil Liberties Union, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Bar Association, and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, as well as individuals active within those organizations – launched in January after Deputy Attorney General James Cole asked the legal profession to provide pro bono assistance to federal prisoners who would likely have received a shorter sentenced if they’d been sentenced today. Clemency Project 2014 members will collaborate to recruit and train attorneys on how to screen for prisoners who meet the criteria laid out by the deputy attorney general and assist prisoners who meet the criteria to find lawyers to represent them at no cost. 

Is clemency the same as a commutation?
Commutation is one form of clemency; the other is a pardon.

What’s the difference between a pardon and a commutation?
A commutation reduces the sentence a prisoner is serving. A pardon erases the consequences of a conviction and is generally granted after a person leaves prison.

Can State inmates apply?
The clemency initiative announced by Deputy Attorney General James Cole only applies to prisoners serving federal sentences. The President does not have any power to reduce sentences for state prisoners. Only governors can do that.

Why is it just Federal?
The President has the authority, granted him by the U.S. Constitution, to commute (lower) federal sentences. He has no authority to commute state sentences. Only state governors have that power.

When does the clemency initiative announced by the Deputy Attorney General go into effect? How does a prisoner apply?
The Bureau of Prisons has sent an announcement describing the criteria, and providing inmates with an opportunity to seek counsel.  The notice advises those prisoners who believe they meet the criteria, and who would like to ask for the help of a lawyer to assist them free of cost, to fill out a survey through Trulinks. Inmates who may not have access to the Bureau of Prisons Trulinks system will be provided with a paper version of the survey with instructions on how to submit it to Clemency Project 2014. Within 6-8 weeks, the survey results will be provided to lawyers working with Clemency Project 2014. All inmates will either be provided with a lawyer or will be notified if it is determined that they do not appear to meet the criteria announced by the Department of Justice. Those inmates can still seek clemency on grounds unrelated to this initiative.

What about a prisoner who has already applied for a commutation and is waiting for a reply. Does s/he need to reapply?
Not necessarily. That will be determined on a case-by-case basis. In some cases, a prisoner may want to reapply or supplement their petition to show how their case fits the criteria the Deputy Attorney General announced. A prisoner who is not already working with a lawyer can ask for a lawyer to help them free of cost by filling out the survey provided by the Bureau of Prisons. If the prisoner asks for legal help, skilled and trained volunteer attorneys from the Clemency Project 2014 will screen the case. If it appears to meet the criteria, a volunteer lawyer from the Clemency Project 2014 (perhaps the same lawyer who screened the case) will work with the prisoner to redraft or supplement the current petition.

What about a prisoner who has applied for a commutation but has been denied. Can s/he apply?
Yes. In some cases, a prisoner may want to reapply and show how his or her case fits the criteria the Deputy Attorney General announced. A prisoner can ask for a lawyer to help free of cost by filling out the survey provided by the Bureau of Prisons. If the prisoner asks for legal help, skilled and trained volunteer attorneys from Clemency Project 2014 will screen the case. If it appears to meet the criteria, a volunteer lawyer from the Clemency Project 2014 (perhaps the same lawyer who screened the case) will work with the prisoner to draft or redraft the petition and reapply.

How will a prisoner get a pro bono lawyer?
Clemency Project 2014 will review the survey results to determine if a prisoner has served ten years and does not have an obviously disqualifying feature (such as a crime of violence). Prisoners who appear to qualify will be assigned a lawyer. That lawyer will write to the prisoner for permission to review documents in his or her case to determine if the other criteria are met. If the criteria are met, the prisoner will be assigned a lawyer to help them fill out and file a clemency petition. That might be the same lawyer who wrote to the prisoner for permission to review their documents or it might be a new one. In either event, the lawyer will write to the prisoner to be sure they want free counsel to help them write and submit a petition for commutation.

What if a prisoner has served a little less than ten years?
Clemency Project 2014 will consider any inmate whose sentence is at least ten years and who will have served at least ten years by the end of the current administration. Inmates who are uncertain about whether they satisfy the criteria are encouraged to complete the survey.

Does the clemency initiative apply to career offenders?
Yes, depending on the number and/or seriousness of the crimes that led to the career offender designation.

Does it apply to economic crimes?
Yes.                       

Does it apply to gun crimes? If so, which cases?
Clemency Project 2014 believes it will apply to certain gun crimes that are not accompanied by violence or use of the weapon. This will be determined on a case by case basis so prisoners should complete the survey if they are not sure if their crime involved violence or use of a weapon.

If a prisoner is filing/has filed a post-conviction appeal/has a 2255 pending right now can s/he still apply for this new clemency initiative?
Yes. A prisoner with pending litigation should discuss this with their lawyer, if one has been assigned or retained. Having a pending post-conviction petition does not automatically bar a prisoner from seeking commutation through this initiative.

Are prisoners who are not legal residents or citizens eligible? Are prisoner with immigration detainers eligible? Are prisoners serving time for illegal (re)entry eligible?
The clemency initiative is not limited to legal residents or U.S. citizens.

I am a lawyer, how do I volunteer?
Lawyers wishing to volunteer should send an email to Clemencyproject@nacdl.org. Lawyers in large firms may wish to contact the firm’s pro-bono coordinator as the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights is working to coordinate the work of large firm lawyers and may be working with the firm. If not, feel free to contact Clemencyproject@nacdl.org.

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's approximately 10,000 direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal justice system.

In This Section

Advertisement Advertise with Us
ad