The President and state governors possess the power of executive clemency, allowing them to pardon offenses or commute the sentences of people with federal or state criminal convictions. They can grant clemency to show mercy to an individual, address a specific injustice, or correct disproportionate punishment of an entire class of offender. President Obama has begun a concerted effort to commute the sentences of federal drug offenders who meet certain criteria. Because so many laws carry excessively long penalties and excessively long sentences are being imposed for many classes of crimes, especially drug offenses, CJPF advocates for the President and state governors to grant clemency to all offenders who are serving unjust sentences.
Types of Clemency
There are two types of executive clemency: a pardon and a commutation of sentence. Typically, a pardon officially forgives an offender for a crime. It usually erases the criminal record and restores civil rights, including voting rights. Depending on their order of pardon, "ex-offenders" or returning citizens may sometimes truthfully be able to answer the question whether they have ever been convicted of a crime, "no." Restoring the right to bear arms may involve additional procedures.
A commutation of sentence is granted to an individual serving time in federal or state prison. It shortens their sentence to allow for early or immediate release. In most of the orders of commutation of sentence issued by President Obama in 2016, he has shortened the sentence, and release follows some number of months.
In some situations, a returning citizen may petition a court to seal or expunge a record of an arrest for which there was no conviction. This is not a form of clemency.
How many people could benefit from Clemency?
The FBI master database of criminal records had 77.7 million names in 2014, according to the Wall Street Journal, but a Bureau of Justice Statistics study of state criminal justice records found that over 100 million individual names were in such records at the end of 2012. Significantly, a great many of those records do not indicate a disposition, so whether there was a conviction or not is not known. Estimates of the number of convictions are based on crude methodologies. One factor limiting the ability to make an accurate estimate is that many offenders have multiple convictions. It is plausible that 20 million Americans have a felony conviction, but that is only an estimate. A widely repeated estimate of the impact of felony disenfranchisement laws is that they prevent nearly 6 million Americans from voting.
While the number of persons who have a federal felony conviction is not known, in the middle of 2016, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has custody of over 190,000 persons.
Clemency Project 2014
The Department of Justice, in cooperation with the American Bar Association, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, FAMM - Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and other groups, in the spring of 2014, launched an initiative, Clemency Project 2014, to solicit clemency petitions from nonviolent federal offenders who would have received a shorter sentence if tried today. It received petitions from 34,000 prisoners, out of a prison population of about 200,000. Clemency Project 2014 began coordinating with New York University’s Clemency Resource Center and pro-bono attorneys nationwide to process the petitions. Lawyers are screening the petitions according to a strict list of requirements, which bars applicants who have served fewer than ten years in prison or have any history of violence, gang affiliation, or misconduct while incarcerated. Reportedly, Clemency Project 2014 screened out half of the petitions for failing to meet the requirements. In 2016 President Obama appointed a new Pardon Attorney and he began ordering dozens, scores and then hundreds of commutations at a time. On August 3, 2016, he commuted the sentences of 214 federal prisoners.
Clemency and CJPF
For over 15 years, CJPF has made information about clemency accessible to the public. Our state and federal clemency guides explain clemency eligibility and application procedures for all 50 states, the District of Columbia and the federal justice system.
In 2000, CJPF created the Coalition for Jubilee Clemency of over 800 clergy to promote Pope John Paul II's call for governments around the world to free prisoners in celebration of the "Jubilee" year (Leviticus 25:10, "And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his family."), and to encourage President Bill Clinton to commute sentences of non-violent drug offenders before he left office.