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Bureaucracy Hampers Clemency Appeals For Eligible Federal Prisoners


President Obama this week is expected to grant nearly 100 prisoners early release or pardons. It's part of a major White House push to offer clemency. With about a year to go in the Obama presidency, the clemency numbers are falling short of the administration's rhetoric. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports on why.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: In January 2014, the Obama administration announced a plan to offer clemency to thousands of nonviolent federal prisoners. Attorney James Felman says he understood from the start it was a big opportunity.

JAMES FELMAN: There had never been anything like this before that we're aware of. We believe this to be the largest pro bono coordinated effort among lawyers in the history of this nation.

JOHNSON: Felman and several allies at nonprofit groups mobilized to help the president make good on his promise. They've recruited thousands of volunteers and started sifting through about 34,000 applications from federal inmates. About half of them turned out to be ineligible under the White House criteria, mostly because they hadn't served at least 10 years behind bars or because they had a violent history. Along the way, the volunteer group known as Clemency Project 2014 found a lot of challenges, like trouble getting access to documents that reveal an applicant's criminal past. Cynthia Roseberry serves as project manager.

CYNTHIA ROSEBERRY: You know, the fact that applicants have to have served 10 years means that many of the documents predate electronic filing. That means that somewhere in the middle of the desert there's a banker's box with the files in it, you know, that we need to review. And so if you think about it in that context, that certainly is outside of our control.

JOHNSON: Another stumbling block? The federal courts last year barred public defenders from working on the clemency effort, leaving the group to rely on many volunteers from the worlds of real estate or tax law, people who may have never touched a criminal case. So far, the volunteers have sent 263 petitions to the government. From there, the applications undergo several more layers of review inside the Justice Department. Julie Stewart of the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums says it would be easier if she could just send petitions directly to the president.

JULIE STEWART: Unfortunately, we don't get to just send the cases directly to him.


STEWART: That would be ideal. But instead, there's a lot of layers of bureaucracy before he may get the cases we think are best.

JOHNSON: The Justice Department's Office of Pardon Attorney already had a backlog of several thousand cases before the White House made a new push for clemency. And the volunteers say they've seen the administration reject few, if any petitions, which would give them clues as to which cases to prioritize. In a written statement, a White House spokeswoman says the president has shortened more prison sentences than the last four presidents combined. And she adds Obama has issued more commutations in a single day than any leader dating back to Lyndon Johnson.

RACHEL BARKOW: I have seen no sign that the logjam has been lifted. Things are just as bad as they've ever been.

JOHNSON: That's Rachel Barkow. She's a law professor at New York University. This year, she grew so worried about the clemency project she started a triage clinic to review prisoner applications. Barkow estimates about 1,600 inmates are eligible for clemency. But the White House has only granted petitions from four inmates recommended by the volunteer group and fewer than 200 others.

BARKOW: I think the blame on this one squarely falls with the president because this is the president's constitutional responsibility. So any process failures that may exist along the way, at the end of the day the buck stops with him.

JOHNSON: To that, the White House says clemency is just one of the tools the president is using to fix what he considers a broken justice system. And he's working with Congress to make more changes that stick. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.