April V. Taylor
Just six months after the Justice Department put out a call for defense attorneys to help identify and qualify federal inmates who would have been eligible for lesser sentences under newer sentencing guidelines, the DOJ is now saying those attorneys may not be qualified to help with the effort. The call was put out as part of Clemency Project 2014, which is a coalition of defense attorneys and advocates who represent a significant portion of the inmates seeking sentence reductions.
Bipartisan efforts have helped reduce harsh sentencing guidelines, but thousands of federal inmates who were sentenced prior to those reforms are still serving long sentences due to the guidelines not being applied retroactively. In an effort to address the unfairness of this issue and reduce the financial strain of an excessive federal inmate population, the Justice Department reached out to organizations such as the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the American Civil Liberties Union, Families Against Mandatory Minimums and federal defenders to develop criteria and processes to allow certain federal inmates to apply for sentence reductions.
Part of what emerged from the collaboration was the defense bar being assigned with the task of identifying federal inmates who qualify for sentence reductions, recruiting and training attorneys willing to assist with cases on a pro bono basis, and preparing and vetting petitions to be submitted to the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney. However, there are now concerns that some of the attorneys being trained through the Clemency Project may not be able to adequately evaluate and represent some of the complex cases being reviewed. There is also a question of whether or not federal defenders are statutorily authorized to participate in the clemency effort.
Mark Osler, who is the director of the Federal Commutations Clinic at the University of St. Thomas, has been helping train attorneys through the Clemency Project. Osler recently stated to Al Jazeera America that, “Federal defenders include some of the best courtroom and appellate advocates in the United States. Having them work with the Clemency Project 2014 has been important to the work we are doing. Losing them as a part of the coalition would be a significant challenge.” While the DOJ is questioning whether federal defenders are qualified to assist inmates seeking sentence reductions, the fact that federal defenders are responsible for handling around 60 percent of the cases prosecuted in federal courts speaks to the fact that these attorneys have the experience and knowledge necessary to navigate federal cases. There are now some 20,000 federal inmates who have requested that their cases be reviewed by the Clemency Project, and they are now being forced to wait for authorities to determine if attorneys who are volunteering their services are allowed to and able to help them fight for reductions in their sentences.