The second-in-command at the Justice Department met Tuesday with defense lawyers and interest groups to identify the cases of worthy prisoners who could qualify for clemency.
The initiative by Deputy Attorney General James Cole follows a speech he gave last month suggesting the White House intends to make more use of the president’s power to shorten prison sentences for inmates who have clean records, no significant ties to gangs or violence, and who are serving decades behind bars for relatively low-level offenses.
Cole wants to enlist lawyers to help solicit and prepare clemency requests. It’s part of a broader effort to stop spending so much money incarcerating people that it squeezes the public safety budget.
A Justice Department spokesman says Cole “wants to ensure that individuals like the eight whose sentences the president commuted in December have access to attorneys to help them present their cases.”
Longtime followers of the pardon power have criticized President Obama’s relatively stingy approach over five years in office. They also suggest that backlogs in the Justice Department’s Office of Pardon Attorney might get worse if the call for more prisoner petitions takes hold.
But the Justice spokesman says Cole has made this effort a top priority and that he’s instructed the pardon attorney to do the same, taking some steps to handle any influx of clemency requests in the months ahead.
Representatives from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Federal public defender program and Families Against Mandatory Minimums had been scheduled to attend the meeting at Justice Department headquarters.
Mary Price of FAMM, one of the attendees, says she came away feeling “really encouraged.”
“We look forward to working together with them and others to help identify potential commutation cases and ensure prisoners have trained pro bono counsel to submit focused petitions for the meaningful consideration the Deputy Attorney General has pledged they will receive,” Price says.
She adds that broader efforts to overhaul the criminal justice system, especially legislation to cut or scrap mandatory minimum sentences, will make the most difference.
“Commutation isn’t the way to fix the system,” Price says. “We need to change these laws so they’re fair for everybody.”