The sentencing policies under the War on Drugs have been unjust and cruel. Mandatory minimums, which include disparities in sentencing for crack compared to powder cocaine, are cases in point. A movement is growing to correct these wrongs.

  • In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA) lowering the crack/powder disparity from 100:1 to 18:1. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the FSA applies to people convicted before the Act was passed but sentenced afterward. Writing the majority opinion, Justice Breyer stated that applying more lenient penalties would help smooth the transition to the new guidelines calling for lower sentences for crack cocaine.
  • In April 2014, the U.S. Sentencing Commission reduced the length of sentences that must be imposed for drug trafficking. The Commission voted to lower the federal drug sentencing guidelines by two levels, a sentence reduction of 11 months on average.   In July 2014, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted that its actions should be applicable retroactively.
  • In August 2014, Attorney General Eric Holder directed U.S. Attorneys in certain low level cases to charge drug offenders in ways that avoid triggering mandatory minimums.

Clemency is an essential part of this movement. Fairness, mercy, and compassion require that we correct past wrongs. This is now beginning to happen.

The Department of Justice announced Clemency Project 2014 to assist people currently incarcerated under old drug sentencing guidelines who would be given less time today. The Department has been recruiting pro bono lawyers to work with incarcerated people to determine if they meet six criteria, including: at least 10 years or more in prison, a non-violent history, good conduct, and no significant prior convictions. Interested in getting involved with Clemency Project 2014? Learn how to volunteer here.

Those meeting the criteria will be eligible for a reduction in their sentence if clemency is granted by the President of the United States.  In December 2014, President Obama exercised this power by commuting lengthy prison sentences for 20 people convicted of drug offenses.  In 2015, Obama granted clemency to 46 men and women.  It was the largest clemency grant given by a president since the 1960s.  He continues to grant clemency in 2016, having freed 61 drug offenders as of April.

Clergy for a New Drug Policy applauds the use of clemency to correct past injustices of overly harsh prison sentences. We encourage states to take similar actions.

Questions about clemency? Check out our War on Drugs FAQs or contact us!

Clemency In the News 

Obama Frees 61 Drug Offenders But Said He’d Free 10,000
Green Rush Daily – April 2, 2016

Presidential clemency highlights need to fix bad laws
The Hill – January 7, 2016

Obama Admin Boosting Staff for Massive Criminal Pardon Effort
Free Beacon – January 6, 2016

Opinion: President Obama’s Department of Injustice
The New York Times – August 18, 2015

Unlikely Allies
The Washington Post – August 15, 2015

With Clemency from Obama, Drug Offender Embraces Second Chance
The New York Times – August 14, 2015

‘Obama Eight’ adjust to life after life sentences
USA Today – July 29, 2015

Presidential Clemency Explained: Why Obama Just Gave 46 Drug Offenders A Ticket Out of Prison
KQED – July 22, 2015


Blog Posts on Clemency