Inside NACDL: One Last Opportunity to Be a Liberator - A Personal Plea From a Fellow Defense Lawyer

Nearly 36,000 inmates sought help in submitting clemency petitions through Clemency Project 2014. Volunteers are needed to complete the reviews and prepare the necessary papers for qualifying inmates.

Access to The Champion archive is one of many exclusive member benefits. It’s normally restricted to just NACDL members. However, this content, and others like it, is available to everyone in order to educate the public on why criminal justice reform is a necessity.

If you are reading this column, there is an extremely high probability that you are a practicing criminal defense lawyer. If so, you are part of a small, select segment of the American bar who knows what it is to bear personal responsibility for an individual’s freedom.

Most of the criminal defense lawyers that I have known are the most dedicated, committed, and honorable women and men in our great profession. We know what it means to represent the innocent, the maybe innocent or maybe guilty, and the surely guilty. Yet, we also know that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel is not reserved for the innocent. Indeed, while defending a person who may be innocent is the most challenging and fearful of undertakings, we also recognize that standing up for the dignity of an individual whose guilt may be beyond question is no less important.

It was in that spirit that NACDL partnered with other groups to set up Clemency Project 2014 — a collaboration with the American Bar Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and the federal and community defenders. The Project’s goal has been to recruit lawyers to assist inmates who are seeking to avail themselves of a clemency initiative launched by the Obama administration.

President Obama has already commuted 187 sentences, more than several of his predecessors combined. And the president has committed to continue granting commutations throughout the remainder of his term. His team — including officials in the Department of Justice and in the Office of White House Counsel — has repeatedly stressed that there is no ceiling. They are determined to grant relief to nonviolent offenders whose long sentences would likely not be imposed under current sentencing laws and policies.

Two years ago when we volunteered to help, we could not have known the magnitude of this undertaking. We could not have anticipated that nearly 36,000 inmates would seek help. We could not have anticipated that obstacles in assembling the necessary data would slow down the process or that an opinion by the Office of Legal Counsel in the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts would preclude representation of these inmates under the Criminal Justice Act.

Nevertheless, the Project confronted every challenge. We improvised, we scrambled, and we persevered. Thousands of cases have now been screened. Hundreds of petitions have been submitted, and hundreds more are in the drafting stage. Nearly 2,000 cases are being reviewed by the nearly 2,000 lawyers who have volunteered.

But there are still more than 3,000 cases awaiting review. Therein lies the challenge. Time passes relentlessly and the end of President Obama’s term draws near. It is not important what any defense lawyer thinks of President Obama’s politics or performance, but for our clients who stand to regain their freedom, we are at a critical crossroads. The president has presented a clemency opportunity that we may never see again. We need America’s criminal defenses lawyers, especially those who have even a casual familiarity with federal sentencing, to stand up. We need you. And we need you now.

The job of completing the review and preparing the necessary papers for a qualifying inmate has been vastly streamlined. I am not suggesting that handling these cases will not take some time. It will. But the project has built a vast support network. We provide weekly support webinars, and we can help you get the job done.

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As I reflect on my four decades as a defense lawyer, I recall why I sought out this career, and why I stuck with it. I stuck with it despite all the adversity and injustice and despite the recurring taunt — how can you represent those people? We all know the answer. It is what lies at the core of every true defense attorney. It is to revel in the sheer joy of standing up to power, and advocating for the worth and dignity of every human soul.

Now, as the clock winds down on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help restore freedom to many, I turn to you: NACDL members, my colleagues and friends in the defense bar, known and unknown. You are the last best hope to reach every deserving inmate. You have the skills, you have commitment, and you have the heart and soul to make this happen.

I implore you in the name of everything that the Sixth Amendment stands for, and the values that we as the defense profession share — please answer the call. Now. Not tomorrow, not next week, or next month. But now. This is our moment to show society that the criminal defense bar embodies the pinnacle of professionalism and public service. This is our moment to serve as liberators.

If you want to volunteer to review an inmate’s case, please email me at

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About the Author

Norman L. Reimer is NACDL’s Executive Director and Publisher of The Champion.

Norman L. Reimer
1660 L Street, NW, 12th Floor
Washington, DC 20036
Fax 202-872-8690

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