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Department of Justice Expands Clemency Opportunities

Web Admin - Thursday, May 01, 2014

The Department of Justice (DOJ) recently released changes to the rules that govern which offenders are eligible for clemency. The changes are targeted at federal drug offenders who may have received particularly harsh sentences based on mandatory minimum sentences or other sentencing procedures that are now deemed unfair. The changes affect the 216,000 inmates currently in federal prisons, though preliminary estimates suggest that only approximately 2,000 inmates would be eligible for clemency under the new rules.

What Is Clemency?

Clemency is a power granted to the President under the Constitution that allows him to affect the sentences of federal inmates. Ordinarily, the Office of the Pardon Attorney, a branch of the DOJ, examines the applications initially, and makes a recommendation to the Deputy Attorney General. The Deputy Attorney General then passes their own recommendation on to the President who makes the final decision.

Clemency comes in two forms, a pardon or a commutation of a sentence. A pardon represents the President’s forgiveness of the offender for the crime, and often signifies reform or good behavior. This type of clemency will also remove many civil disabilities that come along with a conviction, such as loss of the right to vote or hold state office. Conversely, a commutation is a lesser type of clemency, which can reduce or eliminate a person’s sentence, but will not remove civil disabilities. Importantly, neither type of clemency reverses a conviction or in any way implies that the pardoned offender is innocent.

The New Rules

The new rules released by the DOJ do not replace the old clemency standards, but instead expand on them. They are mainly targeted at drug offenders, but could apply to any inmate with a conviction for any low-level nonviolent offense. The six criteria that the DOJ will examine are:

  • - The inmate must be serving a federal sentence that would be substantially lower if the inmate were convicted of that same offense today;
  • - The inmate must be a “non-violent, low-level” offender with no strong connections to serious criminal organizations, gangs, or cartels;
  • - The individual must have served at least 10 years of their term in prison;
  • - The inmate must not have a large history of criminal activity;
  • - The inmate must have had good behavior while incarcerated; and
  • - The inmate must not have a history of violence either prior to their incarceration or during it.

While meeting these criteria does not necessarily qualify an inmate for clemency, the DOJ has stated that they would “prioritize” clemency applications from people in these categories since they believe that they may be “especially meritorious.”

If you believe that you or a loved one could qualify under these new, expanded clemency standards, seek advice from a skilled Illinois criminal defense attorney. Our team has experience handling cases from across the northwest suburbs, including in Rolling Meadows, Palatine, and Schaumburg.

About the Author: Founding partner of Drost, Gilbert, Andrew & Apicella, LLC, Colin Gilbert, received his J.D. from Chicago-Kent College of law in 2005. Colin argues cases across many practice areas including criminal defense, collections, civil litigation, real estate law, and corporate law. Colin is an active member of the Board of Governors of the Northwest Suburban Bar Association and the Illinois Creditors Bar Association. He is currently Vice President of the Arlington Heights Chamber of Commerce, and is a Commissioner for the Village of Arlington Heights. Colin has a 10.0 Attorney rating on Avvo, and was named one of the 2014 “Top 40 Under 40” Trial Lawyers in Illinois by the National Trial Lawyers Association.


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