Late in the morning, January 19th I received a message from a woman I didn’t know from the Department of Justice. She wouldn’t tell my assistant the reason for her call. As any criminal defense attorney knows, unexplained inquiries from the federal government are not typically welcome phone calls. I immediately went through a list of investigation matters which could have precipitated such a call. I reached out to my law partner to warn her that we might be in for some bad news. Her response was more optimistic than mine, saying, “Are you sure this isn’t your clemency petition?” That thought hadn’t occurred to me, because, this being the day before Inauguration Day, I had assumed that President Obama, had already issued his last round of pardons and commutations.
I quickly hung up and called the number. The woman who left me the message answered. I introduced myself and she said she was calling from the Office of the Pardon Attorney at the Department of Justice. My heart was in my throat. Then the message came: she told me that President Obama was commuting my client’s sentence. I started crying the moment the words came out of her mouth. Once I composed myself, I learned that her office had already set up a call between my client and me, so that I could be the first person to share the news with him. Telling my client that President Obama himself had decided that he was deserving of a second chance will always remain a highlight of my career.
In total, President Obama granted clemency to 1927 individuals. Of those, 1715 were commutations and 212 were pardons. While that number may sounds high, it is in fact quite low considering the large number of nonviolent drug offenders who are languishing in federal prisons throughout this country. During the full course of his presidency, President Obama received 36,544 petitions for clemency, which means ultimately he only granted around 5% of those petitions.
It has been hard for me to put into words the gratitude that I feel to President Obama for the humanity he showed my client. Especially because my client is someone who is nameless and faceless to much of our society. It is easy to get behind the cause of someone who has notoriety because of either their position or media spotlight given their incarceration. But to care about someone who is regarded as nothing more than a number in our system – a person who few would even notice if they were walking by – that is the true mark of a leader and a hero by my standards. For me, this client isn’t a number; he is a human being and deserving of this chance. He has paid his debt to society and then some and deserves an opportunity to have a chance to reenter that society. The fact that the President of the United States agreed gives me renewed hope.
I have begun to think about the lessons to draw from this experience and from the Obama presidency in general. For me, these lessons are centered on humanity and hope. There are so many ways that our system has been made better and stronger for the hope and humanity that has been infused into it. From the Clemency Project, to the Holder Memos, to the effort to improve prisons by reevaluating solitary confinement and the privatization of federal prisons, and to the Justice Department’s conducting of investigations and using consent decrees to eliminate unlawful conduct in local law enforcement agencies. The common thread that runs through these initiatives is that they infuse both humanity and hope in our system – the heart and soul of criminal justice reform.
When I heard that President Obama had commuted my client’s sentence, I was overcome with emotion and gratitude. It was partially from the relief that someone finally cared enough to listen to this young man’s story. But it was also a greater sense of redemption for all the moments that I have had to stomach watching a system that previously didn’t care; one void of humanity or hope. Today, because of criminal justice reform our system is stronger, fairer, and more just. And we must fight to keep it that way.