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DOJ Announces Dramatic Changes to Expedite Clemency Petitions

by Derek Gilna

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) on April 23, 2014 announced significant changes in the Office of Pardon Attorney, which processes Pardons, Clemencies, and Commutations.  The former head of the pardon office, Ronald Rogers, had been criticized for lack of pardons issued during President Obama’s administration, the fewest in recent history.  To date, Obama has granted only ten clemencies.

Attorney General Holder’s announcement of the new emphasis on pardons said that it will focus on application related to the Fair Sentencing Act of 2011, but that it would not be limited to just drug offenders.  He noted that the limited retroactivity offered under Fair Sentencing meant that many are still unfairly confined in prison based only upon the year of their conviction, rather than any other factor.

Under the current system, the President only sees the applications for relief that make it to his desk after being approved by the DOJ- the very agency that prosecuted those who are now seeking relief.  Holder eased out the old DOJ attorney who was clearly unsympathetic to the petitions he was supposed to be impartially reviewing, and replaced him with one who is committed to putting thousands of applications on the President’s desk for action.  The stage is set for relief on a scale that should have a significant impact on the number of people in federal prison.

Prisoner's rights attorneys are being encouraged to submit applications to the office without limitation, and Attorney General Holder has indicated a new willingness to cooperate with the defense bar to help the justice system “deliver outcomes that are fair and accessible to all,” and “achieve… equal justice under the law,” in the words of his deputy, James Cole.

Under Obama, almost all applicants have been denied clemency under the old DOJ review system, including one man, Clarence Aaron, who was one of the first eight individuals only recently granted clemency by Obama.  For a federal government tiring of the expense involved in long term confinement of non-violent and often chronically-ill offenders, it is action that is long overdue.

The pardon, clemency, and commutation process is exclusively granted to the President under the U.S. Constitution and is an expression of mercy, and a rare instance of a check on a justice system that often seems to hand out sentences without regard to realistic analysis as to their impact, on either a personal or societal basis. There are specific procedures to be followed in submitting applications for sentence relief, and like all forms of sentence relief, will in all likelihood require the services of skilled legal professionals to be successful.  That was the case with the eight clemency petitions most recently granted by the President.

Sources: National Law Journal,,