News Release

Clemency Project 2014: A Historically Unprecedented and Wholly Independent Volunteer Effort By the Nation's Bar

Clemency Project 2014 is a working group composed of lawyers and advocates including the Federal Public and Community 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.  

Washington, DC (January 16, 2015) – An army of volunteer lawyers are diligently working on behalf of thousands of prisoners who have requested free legal assistance in drafting and submitting clemency petitions. This unprecedented, wholly independent effort by the bar, facilitated by the organizations which make up Clemency Project 2014, seeks to achieve justice for those prisoners.  It reflects these organizations' shared commitment to the highest calling of the legal profession.

At its core, Clemency Project 2014 is a vehicle through which attorneys, responding to the Department of Justice's call for the bar to offer free assistance to potential petitioners, may participate in this important initiative. The Project has not been delegated any responsibility or authority by the Department of Justice. The Project expects the Department of Justice to treat these petitions as they would any other well-reasoned petition in making its recommendations to the President, who is the sole authority for granting clemency. Many prisoners have applied directly to the Department of Justice for clemency without using the lawyers working with Clemency Project 2014, and/or are using counsel they identified and retained outside of the Project.

Since its conception less than a year ago, Clemency Project 2014 created a training and case management infrastructure to prepare an army of volunteer lawyers. Indeed, in just a handful of months, the Project:

  • Provided volunteer support from each of the entities to organize a mechanism for outreach to inmates and attorneys, and to develop a technological infrastructure;
  • Received critical funding from the ACLU and supplemental funding from the Foundation for Criminal Justice to fund and recruit three critical staff positions to oversee the effort;
  • Obtained donated office space and technological infrastructure from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL);
  • Enabled Project administrators to efficiently review, sort, and assign prisoner requests, and created and implemented an electronic database to efficiently organize detailed prisoner requests for assistance that at last count numbered more than 26,000;
  • Developed and deployed an extensive, multi-hour legal education training program (available on demand to any interested attorney at no charge) to ensure that all volunteer lawyers, from any practice background, will be equipped with the tools necessary to evaluate and prepare petitions for submission to the Office of Pardon Attorney for its review and consideration;
  • Responded to a legal memorandum issued by the Administrative Office of the Courts that opined that federal public defenders may not provide representation in clemency matters,  by recruiting additional volunteer attorneys to fill the void while federal defenders continue to assist in gathering documents on behalf of former clients, and to provide administrative support for the Project
  • Worked with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law to recruit more than 50 large firms, bringing hundreds of additional lawyers to the process; 
  • Established and implemented a multi-tier process to assist volunteer lawyers in identifying potentially eligible applicants and preparing petitions for submission to the Office of Pardon Attorney for consideration. After a basic pre-screening, cases are assigned to a volunteer attorney for a thorough analysis. Following that review, an executive summary is submitted to a screening panel, which includes three experienced criminal law practitioners, who review the analysis and provide feedback to the submitting lawyer. Thereafter, following review by the screening panel, a Steering Committee, which includes representatives of each of the participants in the working group, conducts a separate and independent review of the case to determine if the applicant appears to meet the stated criteria. Finally, for those that appear to meet the criteria, the volunteer lawyer prepares a petition, which is then transmitted to the Office of Pardon Attorney for consideration.  
  • Assigned 5,310 cases to volunteer attorneys;
  • Provided individual notice to several thousand applicants with a sentence of less than ten years, a disqualifying factor under the Justice Department's criteria; 
  • Established a website with information for the public, including family members; and 
  • Offered ongoing, individual legal support, resource materials, and on demand training to more than 1,500 volunteer attorneys. 

Project Manager Cynthia W. Roseberry said: "What the participants in Clemency Project 2014 have established here is laser-focused on delivering the best legal assistance possible to those seeking help. The working group that established the Project has brought together tremendous volunteer resources, and in doing so has levelled the playing field in terms of access to counsel for all those who might be eligible for a commutation of their sentence under the Department of Justice initiative. While those with means have always been able to get counsel, this effort has paved the way for everyone to get counsel who may be eligible. Our undertaking is profoundly important, and we hope the Administration will give careful consideration to all clemency petitions, including those from individuals who secured free counsel through this incredible volunteer mobilization. Clemency Project 2014 will stand by its commitment that all applicants who request assistance through the Project can get a lawyer free of charge to review their case and file a petition if they qualify."

This endeavor has brought in lawyers from vastly diverse practice backgrounds, more than 50 of the nation's largest and most prestigious law firms and law clinics, leading not-for-profit organizations, and the criminal defense bar to answer the call made last year by Deputy Attorney General James Cole before the New York State Bar Association. It was there where Cole first announced that the Obama administration would consider commuting the prison sentences of non-violent offenders who had received severe prison sentences and who would likely have received significantly lower sentences if sentenced under current sentencing law and policy. And it was there where he issued a call to the legal profession to provide free assistance to help identify eligible prisoners and assist them in the preparation of clemency petitions.

When the Department of Justice announced in April the category of federal prisoners who would be eligible for consideration under this initiative, it was made clear that it would include potentially thousands of prisoners who had been sentenced under draconian laws to prison terms which, were they imposed today, would be much less harsh due to changes in law and policy. According to the criteria released by the Department of Justice, prisoners must:

  • be currently serving a federal sentence in prison and, by operation of law, likely would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense(s) today;
  • 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; 
  • have demonstrated good conduct in prison; and
  • have no history of violence prior to or during their current term of imprisonment.

For more information and to volunteer for Clemency Project 2014, please visit

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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 many thousands of 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 legal system.