“For our criminal justice system to be effective, it needs to not only be fair; but it also must be perceived as being fair. These older, stringent punishments that are out of line with sentences imposed under today’s laws erode people’s confidence in our criminal justice system. I am confident that this initiative will go far to promote the most fundamental of American ideals - equal justice under law.”
Former Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole
Press Conference Announcing the Clemency Initiative
April 23, 2014
On April 23, 2014, former Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole announced the Department's initiative to encourage qualified federal inmates to petition to have their sentences commuted, or reduced, by the President of the United States.
Under the new initiative, the Department will prioritize clemency applications from inmates who meet all of the following factors:
- They are 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;
- They are non-violent, low-level offenders without significant ties to large scale criminal organizations, gangs or cartels;
- They have served at least 10 years of their prison sentence;
- They do not have a significant criminal history;
- They have demonstrated good conduct in prison; and
- They have no history of violence prior to or during their current term of imprisonment.
Read more about who is qualified to apply for commutation under the new criteria.
The Office of the Pardon Attorney (OPA) worked in conjunction with the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to facilitate the initiative. In addition, the Clemency Project 2014 (a non-government affiliated organization composed of the American Bar Association, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Federal Defenders, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Families Against Mandatory Minimums, as well as individuals active within those organizations and other lawyers wishing to participate in this volunteer effort) helped to quickly and effectively identify appropriate candidates for the initiative.
On October 19, 2015, Clemency Project 2014 (CP2014) stopped accepting requests for the assistance of outside counsel through their organization. OPA was notified that if applications were received by CP2014 prior to the cutoff date, they would review requests for assistance and connect those whose cases appear to meet the described Clemency Initiative criteria with Federal Defenders or volunteer attorneys trained in the sentence commutation process. However, if an inmate had not received a response from CP2014 and wanted to apply for commutation of sentence directly with OPA, they were instructed to submit their application with or without the assistance of counsel. Inmates who appeared to meet the six criteria were offered the assistance of an experienced pro bono attorney through CP2014 in preparing his or her application for clemency. CP2014 was not an office, board, division, or component of the Department of Justice and was solely responsible for any recommendations and determinations of appropriate representation assignments through its organization. Public inquiries related to CP2014 or pro bono attorney assignments within the organization were directed to them via email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Inmates who applied for clemency pro se (representing one's self) were instructed to request that BOP staff submit their petition along with the required documentation from the inmate's central file to OPA. An inmate who elected to be represented by counsel in filing for commutation was instructed to consult with his or her attorney instead of contacting OPA on their own.
OVERVIEW OF DOJ’S CLEMENCY INITIATIVE
On April 23, 2014, the Department of Justice, at the behest of the President, announced the Clemency Initiative, inviting petitions for commutation of sentence from nonviolent offenders who, among other criteria, likely would have received substantially lower sentences if convicted of the same offenses today. As of January 19, 2017, the President granted commutation of sentence to a total of 1,715 individuals.
As expected, the announcement of the Clemency Initiative resulted in an influx of petitions far larger than that received during any previous Administration – including thousands of petitions involving crimes clearly not falling under the initiative, such as murder, terrorism, sex crimes, public corruption, and financial fraud.
Notwithstanding a record number of overall petitions, the Department took steps to ensure that petitions submitted under the Clemency Initiative would be identified, prioritized, and sent to the White House during President Obama’s tenure. To accomplish this, the Department streamlined its procedures and prioritized petitions from individuals convicted of drug trafficking offenses over the thousands of petitions involving other crimes for which sentencing law has not changed.
At the end of August 2016, Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates announced that the Department would review and provide a recommendation to the White House on every petition from a drug offender then in the Department’s possession.1 That number turned out to be approximately 6,195 petitions.2 In the four months after that date, the Department met that commitment by reviewing and providing a recommendation on all 6,195 petitions, as well as many hundreds received after August 31, 2016, that were identified as particularly meritorious. In addition, the Department succeeded in reviewing all petitions submitted in drug cases by November 30, 2016, by inmates serving life sentences. During the Administration, through January 19, 2017, the Department made recommendations to the White House on approximately 16,776 petitions received from drug offenders.
Approximately 7,881 commutation petitions remain pending in the Office of the Pardon Attorney as of January 19, 2017. Of those, approximately 4,412 are from offenders convicted of crimes other than a drug crime, while approximately 3,469 are from drug offenders but were received after August 31, 2016.3 An additional 999 petitions were submitted from petitioners who have already been released from prison and seek a remission of fines or other relief, or are likely moot. Consistent with historic practice, these remaining petitions will be processed by the Office of the Pardon Attorney and addressed by future Administrations.
Total Petitions Pending in the Office of the Pardon Attorney
as of January 19, 2017 (Estimates)
Pending Petitions from Drug Offenders Received Before or Mailed By 08/31/16
Pending Petitions from Drug Offenders Received After 08/31/16
Pending Petitions from Non-Drug Offenders (Murder, Terrorism, Sex Offenses, Fraud, etc.) – All Pending
Total Pending Petitions
1 In March 2016, as the two-year anniversary of the announcement of the Initiative approached, the Pardon Attorney advised interested parties that time was of the essence to assure time for complete consideration of all petitions during the Administration, and suggested that unless petitions were submitted very soon full consideration could not be assured.
2 The total number of drug petitions pending as of August 31, 2016, was determined by cross-checking the records of the Office of the Pardon Attorney and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Given differences in how the two agencies keep records, this number is approximate and may be subject to change.
3 The Office of the Pardon Attorney applied a “grace period” and considered all petitions received by mail by September 15, 2016, to assure that all petitions mailed in August were considered.
About the Office of the Pardon Attorney
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Information and Instructions on Commutations and Remissions
Privacy Statement for Commutation of Sentence
Rules Governing Petitions for Executive Clemency