Inside NACDL: The Forgotten Souls

Although the president reduced the sentences of 1,715 nonviolent prisoners serving extremely long sentences, he did not commute the sentences of clemency applicants who were not U.S. citizens.

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.

President Barack Obama’s clemency program was historic. The cover story of the December 2016 edition of The Champion reflected on the project, from a perspective with several weeks to go in the president’s term.1 The initiative concluded with a flurry of commutations, including several hundred in the administration’s final week. But the work was incomplete when the clock struck noon on January 20. Hundreds of worthy petitioners, including the entire class of noncitizen applicants, did not have their sentences commuted. Ironically, the current president, who has expressed an appetite to deport noncitizens, can fix that.

The president reduced the sentences of 1,715 nonviolent prisoners who had outstanding institutional behavior and were serving extremely long prison sentences. And 894 of those applicants were supported by Clemency Project 2014, perhaps the largest pro bono effort ever undertaken by the legal community. Those 894 commutations were far less than the nearly 2,600 petitions supported by the Project. I was proud that NACDL collaborated with the American Bar Association Criminal Justice Section, the American Civil Liberties Union, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and many volunteer federal and community defenders to oversee the working group that coordinated this enormous undertaking. When merely considering the 894 commutations that were the result of Clemency Project support, not only were thousands of families members reunited, but more than 13,000 prison years were saved at a benefit of more than $430 million to taxpayers.

But when the president’s term ended, hundreds of these deserving applications remained pending. All of those who reviewed these cases were awestruck by the sad histories and amazing determination of many to turn their lives around. Imagine serving 10 or more years in a federal penitentiary without a single infraction, How many of us can make that claim when not living under such conditions? But that is what we saw time and time again.

Importantly, among the deserving applicants is a unique pool of hundreds that were denied and many of which are still pending, which should be of special interest to the current president. For reasons that we may never know, it appears President Obama did not commute the sentences of anyone who was not a U.S. citizen. Many of these applicants were not even undocumented residents. But even those who were in a legal status when arrested, as well as those who were not, are subject to deportation upon release — if they were not sentenced to die in prison. Some of those in this category are the most sympathetic cases, and include deserving offenders who were ensnared in the antiquated draconian sentencing laws that would not be applied today. Consider someone who was convicted of a low-level drug offense at a young age who was sentenced to 30 years or more, but whose sentence today would be no more than 10 years. Many cases fit that category.

While I abhor the emergence of the Trump administration immigration policies, most particularly the January 27 immigration-related executive order effectively barring Muslims from seven countries and totally excluding Syrian refugees, the noncitizen, nonviolent federal prisoners whose petitions were denied or ignored are truly forgotten souls. Before President Trump bans, bars, banishes, or blocks any other noncitizen, he should commute the sentences of these petitioners.

To be sure, many of these people have no ties to their country of origin, and their only family and friends — including parents, spouses, and children — reside in the United States. For that reason, some may ultimately decline to accept a commutation, preferring prison to exile from loved ones. But for many others who will have a second chance at freedom, albeit in their country of origin, this is a golden opportunity for President Trump to exercise the mercy dispensing power of clemency, consistent with his declared immigration policy and at great savings for American taxpayers.

If this president is determined to pursue a policy of deportation, he should start by commuting the sentences of these forgotten souls who for no good reason were left behind at noon on January 20.


  1. Norman L. Reimer, The Commutation Legacy of President Barack Obama: Reflections on Clemency Project 2014 — The Legal Profession’s Response to a Call for Help, The Champion, December 2016 at 16.
About the Author

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

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Norman L. Reimer
Washington, DC

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