When President Obama commuted the sentences of 214 federal prisoners in early August, eight of the inmates were represented by NYU Law’s Clemency Resource Center (CRC) and the Mercy Project—a major achievement for the team at the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law (CACL).
The president’s latest grants of clemency come at the end of an enormously successful year for the CRC. About 12 months after its launch as a temporary, pop-up law office focused exclusively on such petitions for federal prisoners likely to receive shorter sentences if sentenced today, the CRC, and the Mercy Project in which it is housed, have screened 625 clemency applications and filed 150 petitions. From the beginning the CRC joined forces with the Mercy Project, a preexisting program within CACL that pursues sentencing reductions, clemency petitions, and medical-based compassionate release applications for non-violent offenders. Twenty of the team’s clients, including eight who were serving life sentences, have received clemency as of early August.
“I couldn’t be prouder of the CRC team,” said Segal Family Professor of Regulatory Law and Policy Rachel Barkow, who co-founded the CRC and also serves as faculty director of CACL. “The lives of 20 people, not to mention the lives of their loved ones, are forever changed by the team’s hard work. There is no greater work a lawyer can do than helping someone win their freedom from an excessive sentence.”
The CRC is among the law schools and law firms that have submitted the most clemency petitions. This is due to the CRC’s singular focus on petitions, resulting in an unparalleled expertise. Unlike pro bono lawyers who may work on one or two cases, the CRC has had a team of seven attorneys working full-time on cases for a year.
Not only are CRC attorneys thoroughly familiar with the criteria for clemency and the arguments that can be made, but the law office has also prioritized client participation in developing the petition, according to Caitlin Naidoff, CRC’s assistant director.
“There are things that all lawyers can do from looking at the record and the documents available, but what you can’t do without the client is get to the heart of the matter and tell the story behind the case,” said Naidoff. In one case, she added, a client explained in his personal statement that both his parents died shortly before he turned to crime.
Although the CRC closed its doors this month, the Mercy Project, which formed in 2013, will continue to file petitions and work to improve the clemency process, as well as take over the CRC cases that remain open.
“We’re trying to get as many qualified petitions as possible in front of the president’s desk so he can achieve the goal of granting clemency to everybody that meets the Department of Justice criteria,” said Deborah Gramiccioni, a former federal prosecutor who serves as executive director of CACL and leads the Mercy Project. Barkow estimates there are roughly 1,500 people who should easily quality for clemency.
With the clock running out on President Obama’s final term in office, the attorneys at CACL are pushing the envelope: Barkow supports redesigning federal clemency so it can provide a true constitutional check as originally intended.
“In the era of mass incarceration, it is more important than ever for the federal clemency process to fix excessive sentences and to grant pardons to relieve individuals from disabling collateral consequences of convictions,” said Barkow. “But the system we have now is fundamentally flawed.”
Posted August 19, 2016