Inside NACDL: Thousands of Prisoners Need Your Help

President Obama’s clemency initiative presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for defense lawyers to reverse the ravages of harsh sentencing policies that have ruined the lives of defendants. Clemency Project 2014 needs volunteers to assist inmates in preparing clemency petitions.

Access to The Champion archive is one of many exclusive member benefits. It’s normally restricted to just NACDL members. However, this content, and others like it, is available to everyone in order to educate the public on why criminal justice reform is a necessity.

Editor’s Note: Norman L. Reimer emailed this letter to NACDL members on June 4, 2015. We reproduce it here to underscore the importance of the Justice Department’s clemency initiative, which could result in an untold number of inmates regaining their freedom. The defense community has a rare opportunity to help alleviate the heavy yoke of draconian prison sentences judges imposed on some defendants.

Dear Colleagues:

I write to personally ask for the assistance of every NACDL member and the entire criminal defense bar. Here’s why: 

I still vividly recall a case I handled about 20 years ago, the facts of which will be familiar to every criminal defense lawyer who has practiced under harsh mandatory sentencing practices. My client was convicted in a crack cocaine case. I vainly urged the judge to depart from the sentencing guidelines, arguing that the 100-to-1 disparity between crack and powder was unjustified, and that lengthy incarceration was not necessary and did not serve the ends of justice. In a refrain that I know most of you have heard many times, the judge sanctimoniously intoned, “Counselor, you are preaching to the choir. But, my hands are tied.” And just like that, he imposed an obscenely long sentence, effectively snuffing out my client’s youth and middle age.

Fortunately, in recent years there have been changes in the law and charging policies that have relaxed some of the harshest sentencing practices. A bizarre feature of our criminal justice system, however, is that many of these changes are not available to those who were sentenced under the old regime. That is where the Obama administration clemency initiative comes into play. The president’s clemency initiative presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for defense lawyers to reverse the ravages of harsh sentencing policies that have ruined the lives of thousands of our clients and their families. Countless inmates can benefit from this program, but they need lawyers to help. And they need them now.

You — America’s criminal defense lawyers — are best positioned to provide that assistance. All you need to do is analyze the basis for the sentence to determine if the inmate would have received a lesser sentence under current law and policy. Then, you need to review the inmate’s prior criminal history and prison record to ensure that he or she will meet the various criteria established by the Department of Justice. Clemency Project 2014, which is the name for the infrastructure that has been created to support this pro bono effort, can show you how to do the necessary analysis and can expedite the process by which you obtain the required documents. It is important to note that it is not necessary to have federal criminal defense experience to be an effective advocate for these inmates.

CJA panel members are not required to participate in the clemency training program. Other volunteers can access a comprehensive training program on the clemency website.

I make this appeal at this time because we still have many inmates who have not yet had their cases assigned for review, and time is of the essence. After a petition has been submitted, the review process at the Department of Justice and the White House takes a number of months. Thus, it is critical that petitions on behalf of all eligible inmates be submitted by early next year. The worst possible scenario would be for the clock to run out before all of the eligible cases can be reviewed and submitted. The Constitution does not provide for overtime in a presidential term.

All of us who have dedicated our lives to representing the accused know that ever-harsher sentencing laws have led to America’s age of mass incarceration. Even as society finally begins to awaken to the tragedy and waste that resulted from those sentencing practices, we defense lawyers still live with the indelible memory of having watched helplessly while cruel prison terms of breathtaking length ruined so many of our clients’ lives. This was especially the case with federal drug cases, and those are the kinds of cases most likely to benefit from the clemency initiative.

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I understand the demands of a criminal defense practice. In exchange for a few hours of your time, however, you can help individuals regain years of their lives. I also know that this is a special moment and that criminal defense lawyers understand better than most that the opportunity to restore a person to freedom is an invaluable gift — both for the liberated and liberator.

So, I implore you — each and every one of you as a fellow defense attorney — to please volunteer to assist Clemency Project 2014, and help make history by restoring the liberty of countless condemned. This is truly an opportunity for all of us to fulfill our role as “Liberty’s Last Champion.”

For additional information and to volunteer for Clemency Project 2014, visit

www.clemencyproject2014.org.