On July 13, President Obama granted clemency to 46 inmates. As the President said, “Their punishments didn’t fit the crimes.” The President added that reducing the number of people serving long sentences for non-violent drug crimes is one of the top priorities for the balance of his time in office. The ACLU reports that the United States, which makes up only 5% of the world’s population, has 25% of its total prison population. The Coalition for Public Safety reports that 60% of America’s prison population is made up of racial and ethnic minorities. About one-third of all American adults now have criminal history records.
In 2014, the Department of Justice began a program to systematically identify prisoners serving sentences that would be shorter under laws changed since the original sentences were imposed. The attorneys reviewing those cases are facing a backlog of work. Former U.S. Attorney George O’Connell, who provides pro bono assistance to prisoners, reports on the situation.
O’Connell says that his firm was contacted by the Clemency Project 2014 to get involved. As a result, O’Connell says, he and several of his firm members are involved in reviewing cases and writing clemency petitions and reviewing cases for prisoners who might qualify for clemency. The program is running more smoothly now than at its commencement.
O’Connell believes that the biggest challenge facing any prospective clemency recipient is to fit within the parameters established by the Justice Department in order to qualify for clemency. The guidelines are “fairly stringent” and include things like no history of violence (including prison) and a limitation to low-level offenders. The program “is not for drug kingpins.” The target group is people who got into the system for possession of small amounts of drugs but received relatively harsh sentences under the laws then in force.
O’Connell points out that this program is not dependent on who is in the White House several years from now. Once a sentence is commuted, “that’s the end of it.” The only question is whether this program, or one like it, would continue under the next occupant of the White House.
O’Connell believes that reform of the criminal justice system has already begun within the Department of Justice, which has changed some of its charging guidelines to do away with mandatory minimum sentences except in aggravated circumstances. People with two or three small drug offenses are no longer facing life terms when the commit another small-time offense.
Calls for change in the justice system are coming from liberals and conservatives alike, including both the Koch brothers and Van Jones. And Republican and Democratic senators have made common cause of justice reform.
George L. O'Connell is Special Counsel with the DLA Piper law firm, practicing in Sacramento, California. He served as the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of California from 1991 to 1993. He then served as a partner at California law firm in Sacramento until he founded Stevens & O'Connell with Chuck Stevens in 1997. Prior to his appointment as United States Attorney in 1991, George served as an Assistant United States Attorney in the Eastern District and headed the Special Prosecutions Unit. The Legal Broadcast Network is a featured network of the Sequence Media Group.