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DOJ Announces Clemency Program For Nonviolent Drug Offenders

By William Peacock, Esq. on April 24, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

First came the Fair Sentencing Act reform. Then came disputes over whether crack sentencing reform was retroactive.

Now, a third wave of relief for nonviolent drug offenders is on the way, after Attorney General Eric Holder, the Obama administration, and the Department of Justice announced that a new clemency program that will prioritize applications from nonviolent low-level offenders who meet a specific list of criteria.

As part of the program, there will be a change in leadership in the DOJ's pardons department, as well as a call for pro bono assistance for as many as 23,000 potentially qualifying inmates.

Who is Eligible?

According to the press release, inmates who meet these factors get priority:

  • 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;
  • Non-violent, low-level offenders without significant ties to large scale criminal organizations, gangs or cartels;
  • Served at least 10 years of their prison sentence;
  • Do not have a significant criminal history;
  • Demonstrated good conduct in prison; and
  • No history of violence prior to or during their current term of imprisonment.

The gang and violence requirements should narrow down the field quite a bit, especially for those who join prison gangs for protection, but any reduction in our massive prison population is (arguably, see below) a good one.

Leadership Shakeup

The drastic program, which many are predicting to be the largest expansion of the president's clemency power since Vietnam draft dodgers were granted clemency en masse decades ago, won't be overseen by the existing Pardon Attorney, Ronald Rogers. The press release kindly notes that he'll take a different position in the department after a transition period, but Yahoo! News sheds a bit more light on the reason for the switch.

In 2012, Rogers was censured for misrepresenting the facts of a commutation request involving a nonviolent drug offender. The president has also become frustrated with how few clemency petitions have been approved during Rogers' tenure, according to the news outlet.

He'll be replaced by Deborah Leff, whose previous position within the DOJ involved increasing access to attorneys for poor defendants. She'll have a similar task on her hands here, with Clemency Project 2014 set to rely upon a combination of transferred DOJ attorneys, Federal Defenders, and pro bono attorneys.


Reuters outlines just how unusual this move by the administration really is. President George W. Bush, over eight years, granted eleven commutations. President Bill Clinton granted 61. Obama's numbers, so far, have been minimal, but could reach hundreds or thousands over the next two years.

Stanford Law professor Robert Weisberg, the co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, noted that this was almost like the administration was making the new laws retroactive. "It's almost as if they have to invent their own kind of shadow sentencing guidelines and in effect re-sentence certain people," he noted.

And while some Republicans support Holder's "Smart on Crime" initiative as a means of cutting down prison costs, others worry that it will reverse a drop in crime that has occurred in recent decades.

What are your thoughts on the "Smart on Crime" and "Clemency Project 2014" projects? Join the discussion on Facebook at FindLaw for Legal Professionals.

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