The Mercy Project

Life is fragile. We sometimes forget that, but we remember quickly when we lose something or someone important to us. We often forget it because, in the developed world, we tend to live longer and better than people ever have. We forget that, even in our own country, not everyone lives (and has lived) as we do.

Last Friday, President Obama granted mercy to 95 people who may have died in prison otherwise. The President granted them executive clemency and commuted their sentences so that they may be able to go home in the next year or two. Most had been sentenced to life in prison or to extremely long, nearly-life sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Many had already served twenty years or more in prison.

Each of these people met six criteria that the Justice Department has outlined for consideration of clemency petitions:

  1. They are serving a federal prison sentence that would likely be substantially lower if they were convicted of the same offense today.
  2. They are nonviolent, low-level defendants without significant ties to gangs, cartels, or other large-scale criminal organizations.
  3. They have served at least ten years of their sentence already.
  4. They have no significant criminal history.
  5. They have demonstrated good conduct in prison.
  6. They have no history of violence before or since their imprisonment.

For people who meet these criteria, six leading civic organizations have partnered to help them petition for clemency. The six are the American Bar Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the Offices of Federal Public Defenders.

Their collaboration, the Clemency Project, has produced an impressive, volunteer effort by the country’s legal profession to review case files and to prepare clemency petitions for those who deserve it. Of the 95 petitions that the President granted last week, the Clemency Project was responsible for 27 of them.

But they need more help, so if you’re a lawyer, please consider taking on just one case for the public good and the cause of justice. If you’re a criminal defense lawyer, that’s even better, but lawyers from any practice area are welcome, and the Project will guide and support you so that you don’t have to worry about what you don’t know.

You may even help someone come home for Christmas who thought they never would again.

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