Thousands of prisoners apply for Obama’s drug-clemency program

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder listens to President Barack Obama talk about the My Brother's Keeper Task Force while in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington, May 30, 2014. (REUTERS/Larry Downing)

Offer a chance at presidential mercy, and inmates will line up.

That’s what the federal government found out last month when more than 18,000 prisoners filled out electronic surveys to apply for reduced sentences from President Barack Obama in a new program designed to clear federal prisons of nonviolent offenders, Yahoo News has learned.

Federal prisoners are always able to petition the president to have their sentences commuted. But in April, the Justice Department announced a sweeping new initiative that actively solicits these petitions from inmates who have served more than 10 years for a nonviolent crime; most of the crimes are drug-related. The program is intended to give a break to prisoners who were sentenced under now-defunct draconian drug laws that locked up people for decades for nonviolent crimes.

The response to the president’s clemency program is staggering. Before this program, about 18,000 federal prisoners had applied for commutations over the previous 12 years combined. The sweeping change is part of the president’s transformation from granting the fewest pardons of any modern president in his first term to potentially commuting the sentences of hundreds or even thousands of nonviolent drug offenders in his second. Such a potentially large grant of clemency has not been seen since President Gerald Ford's amnesty for Vietnam-era draft dodgers.

But many of the 18,000 prisoners who began the clemency process almost certainly do not meet the requirements set out by the Justice Department, advocates and administration officials stressed.

A group of public defenders and legal advocates called Clemency Project 2014 will conduct the initial screening of the 18,000 petitions. They will choose the best applications, flesh them out, and then send them on to the Office of the Pardon Attorney in the coming months. Many of the initial applications will never make it to the pardon attorney's desk, much less the president's.

Barbara Scrivner, a federal inmate who is applying for Obama's drug clemency program, poses with her family at the Dublin prison in Northern California.(Courtesy of Barbara Scrivner)
Barbara Scrivner, a federal inmate who is applying for Obama's drug clemency program, poses with her family at the Dublin prison in Northern California.(Courtesy of Barbara Scrivner)

“So far the Clemency Project has received 18,000 completed surveys, but none of these have yet been screened at all, and we can’t speculate as to how many of these will meet the criteria,” Vanita Gupta, the American Civil Liberties Union's deputy legal director and a leader of the Clemency Project, told Yahoo News.

Another Clemency Project member, University of St. Thomas Law Professor Mark Osler, said the group will train volunteer attorneys to vet the applications. “It is going to be a lot of work to look at this number of applications, and many of them are going to present difficult questions,” Osler said. “We also expect to enlist some of the smartest attorneys in the United States to help.”

The Office of the Pardon Attorney is the small corner of the Justice Department in charge of sorting through clemency petitions and sending its recommendations to the deputy attorney general and then to the White House. The office is chronically overburdened — thousands of unresolved pardon and commutation requests were already piling up in the office before Obama’s program was announced. The former head of the office, Ronald Rodgers, was pushed out in April as part of this overhaul. Rodgers was criticized in a 2012 Justice Department inspector general's report for mishandling a high-profile clemency petition. During Obama's first term, Rodgers recommended the denial of nearly every single petition for commutation that reached his desk.

Attorney General Eric Holder said in April that attorneys from other parts of the Justice Department would be reassigned to the pardon attorney's office, and requested funds to hire additional lawyers to wade through the wave of petitions. But House Republicans voted last week to block funding for more pardon attorney staff, criticizing the clemency program as an overreach that benefits drug dealers.

Late in his first term, after discussions with his White House counsel and Holder, Obama decided he wanted to use more aggressively his unfettered presidential power to pardon.  The president is looking for federal prisoners who have already served 10 years for a nonviolent crime that would have been prosecuted or sentenced differently today. (One example is inmates who were charged under now-repealed laws that punished people 100 times more harshly for possessing or dealing crack than for powdered cocaine.) Prisoners must have a clean record as inmates and have committed no “significant” violent acts before their current charge.

The Bureau of Prisons delivered the clemency survey to the system’s more than 200,000 federal prisoners, electronically or in paper form, beginning on May 5. The survey includes a warning in capital letters that there’s “NO GUARANTEE” inmates' petitions will be granted, and that commutations remain very rare.

A number of inmates in addition to the 18,000 may have submitted their clemency petitions directly to the Justice Department, forgoing the chance to have a pro bono attorney. Neither the Justice Department nor the Bureau of Prisons would comment on how many prisoners submitted applications directly.