President Obama commuted 46 defendant’s sentences this week – what a turnaround for the defense bar. More often than not, our cries for leniency and a reasonable perspective when fashioning a sentence falls on deaf ears – so much so that it feels hard to trust that people are actually listening and doing something about it. As defense attorneys we develop tough skins, and an ability to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off after every lost battle. Because of this experience, it has been difficult, at least for me, to trust there is a genuine and universal desire to help our clients. This feeling has stuck with me throughout the Clemency Project, where I feel as though I have been waiting for the rug to get pulled out from underneath me.
But I must admit that in this week’s announcement, something shifted. I began to relax, and mistrust was replaced with hope. I never thought I would see the day where a sitting President would give a news conference explaining that the punishment levied in the drug sentences he commuted didn’t fit the crime while he announced we are a nation of second chances. And then post a video of his address (see embedded video below) on social media. The President even sent personal letters to the 46 prisoners, encouraging them to take advantage of the second chance they had been given. Finally, the President will be the first sitting president to visit a federal prison this week and is expected to announce his administration’s plans to overhaul the criminal justice system. If I am dreaming, don’t pinch me.
These 46 newly commuted sentences that bring the total of sentences commuted to around 90, is still a small drop in a big bucket, but it is starting to feel like a powerful drop. This drop is about far more than just the lives of 46 people, it is a strong statement by our leader that something has to change; that our criminal justice system is broken. It is hope for our clients past, present, and future.
This announcement also reminds me that there is still an overwhelming amount of work to do. There is an army of lawyer volunteers to assist with the overwhelming number of applicants for clemency but that army is a drop in the bucket too. Even more lawyers are needed. If you would like to help, please visit The Clemency Project and volunteer if you have not already. It is so important that we take advantage of this opportunity for our clients, our system, and our humanity.