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June 15, 2015

Perspectives on Clemency Project 2014 from federal prisoners and an advocate for them

Regular readers know I have given lots of space recently to coverage and criticism of federal clemency efforts.  I am pleased to continue now with a guest post via Beth Curtis, a prisoner advocate who runs the website Life for Pot.  Beth sent this extended commentary my way under the heading "Inspired by the Dialogue between Margaret Colgate Love here and Mark Osler here on Douglas Berman’s Blog Sentencing Law and Policy":

At the launch of Clemency Project 2014 [CP-14], Craig Cesal, a non-violent marijuana offender on the Life for Pot site and his cell mate Samuel Edmonson a non-violent cocaine offender were both talking about and working on petitions for commutation.  Both Craig and Samuel had sentences of life without parole and had nothing to lose.

The two cell mates had a discussion about whether or not they should file their own petitions just in case there were going to be commutations before attorneys from The Clemency Project 2014 could prepare one for them.  Craig argued that the project had said there was no reason for filing on your own, as the criteria was different and it would probably have to be done again.  Samuel on the other hand decided that he should be sure he had a petition in the Pardon Attorney’s office and in February of 2014, he filed a brief petition for commutation that he did himself.

Very early in the process both of these offenders were assigned pro bono attorneys from the same law firm.  Samuel and Craig had initial contacts with their pro bono attorneys, but after that contact they were not contacted again and did not know if any work was being done.  

In March of 2015 Samuel received a commutation for his life sentence from President Barack Obama based on the petition he filed himself.

We were interested in this because there were only three life for pot inmates that we knew of who had been assigned pro bono attorneys and they only had initial contacts.  We contacted inmates and suggested that they begin preparing their own Clemency Petitions and file them, we don’t know if CP-14 will be able to overcome the cumbersome procedure.

In March of 2015 Larry Duke, a 68 year old non-violent marijuana offender with a sentence of life without parole was released.  Larry’s immediate release was pursuant to 18 USC 3582(c)(1)(A)(i).  The “extraordinary and compelling reasons” for the release was Larry’s status as an elderly inmate.  Although Larry is over 65 he is also the healthiest of those on the Life for Pot site.  Larry had a contact from a pro bono attorney through Clemency Project 2014.  We called his attorney who did not know he had been released.

We started getting questions about the process for Reduction in Sentence [RIS] from non-violent marijuana offenders.  They wanted to know if they should file for sentencing relief even though they had filled out a survey to request an attorney through Clemency Project 2014.

These are not legal questions, but questions about procedure and we sought answers from an attorney with CP–14.  It was their considered opinion that the elder inmates should not file for RIS until CP–14 had completed the process as clemency might be held up until the (CR/RIS) was resolved.

Inmates found that BOP facilities were not aware of the elderly, over the age of 65, criteria for applying for RIS.  This remedy has seldom been used and “extraordinary and compelling reasons” were interpreted by the BOP as being almost lifeless chained to a hospital bed.

How much hope should we have for this process?  Was Larry Duke’s release singular, or will this be the beginning of an accelerated process?  We would like to know.

The hope and promise of Clemency Project 2014 is like a breath of air for these nonviolent inmates who will be behind bars till they die if no one exercises compassion, mercy and justice.  We’re listening carefully to the dialogue between Mark Osler and Margaret Love about the hope and promise for relief.

We are in the 18th month since the launch of the project and yet only two inmates have been released through this apparently clogged tunnel to freedom.  Much has been written in support of clemency and its use to address serious facility overcrowding and sentencing disparity.  Information about progress is scant and prisoners, their families and advocates worry about the progress and the will of the Administration.

Lately these public discussions by well-known clemency advocates pondering the most effective way to deal with the over incarceration gives us hope.  Margaret Colgate Love and Mark Osler’s point counter point about it on the blog Sentencing Law and Policy by Douglas Berman gave us insight. I believe these discussions are helpful but not a substitute for more transparency and concrete information given to the inmates, their families and advocates about procedure and progress.  We need to respect these vulnerable non-violent citizens.

It would be an insensitive travesty if this program that was announced with such fanfare and gave such hope to thousands of inmates, their family and friends and advocacy groups did not fulfill the promise of compassion and mercy.  These non-violent incarcerated people are accustomed to broken promises, but this one can be easily fulfilled by a bold administration with the courage of their stated convictions.  For years, nonviolent inmate advocates have felt that bi-partisan support would be the key to this realignment of positions and lead to fiscal responsibility and compassion.  Bipartisan support has arrived and we have the promise, it just needs to be fulfilled.

Some prior related posts:

June 15, 2015 at 06:32 PM | Permalink


Well stated, by a woman I admire immensely! If it were not for Beth, I would not even know about these men serving LIFE for pot. Even more ironic is that the attorney for Craig Cesal's cellmate - Sam, who was appointed to file his petition didn't even know he had received clemency, either. In the interim, 3 months later, Craig's attorney is still waiting for court documents or some whatnot that none of us can understand or nail down. It's always some ubiquitous thing that is supposedly holding up the process, yet no one communicates that to the client. I called Craig's attorney and asked him what he needed and as it turned out, Craig has/or had the documents in question, so, no wonder nothing is happening. That's what happens when people don't communicate with one another. I will never understand how these attorneys are filing such an important document without communicating with the client. I personally wrote my own and an attorney filed it under his name/firm. And, i suggest that prisoners get involved and get busy, working on their own petition if they want to catch this train, cuz it has almost left the station. The balance of Obama's term will be up in a heartbeat and it takes time to process the application once it has been filed - i'd say, that if the applications isn't in by now...chances will get slimmer by the day to win that lottery ticket in the form of a sentence commutation.

Posted by: Amy Povah | Jun 16, 2015 2:42:28 AM

Sorry, I just noticed your post asking for info on the commentator. I'm the CEO of CAN-DO Foundation which I started after I received clemency from Pres. Clinton after serving 9 years on a 24 year sentence for Ecstasy. I started CAN-DO to help the many women I left behind but after I produced a documentary about marijuana, Cheri Sicard turned me on to Beth Curtis's website LifeforPot and altho my film was "locked" I was able to find a way to insert the faces of 10 pot lifers into the documentary with existing soundtrack because even I was shocked to learn there were so many people serving life for pot - regardless of the fact the first 7 women on my "Top 25 Women Who Deserve Clemency" are serving LIFE and I well understand the conspiracy law that is responsible for these egregious cases of injustice. My main concern is that the conspiracy law is being left out of dialogue by other reform groups and the media which is why, every time I explain how I received 24 years based on all the Ecstasy my ex-husband manufactured, mouths drop open. Especially when I tell them that he was the ringleader and only received 3 years probation in a plea agreement - which means, he 'Cooperated" which means he snitched out everyone beneath him. Mandatory minimums get all the press but typically has nothing to do with how cases are indicted, brought to court and shake out. Without conspiracy, prosecutors could not build a case against most drug offenders.

Posted by: Amy Povah | Jun 16, 2015 2:57:28 AM

Amy is so right. Most all nonviolent marijuana offenders who received life without parole were charged with conspiracy and requested to go to trial.

Posted by: beth | Jun 16, 2015 2:50:50 PM

I have an interesting question. A friend of mines son is going to be released down the road. He hunts and has guns and ammo.

He wants to know if the guns and ammo are locked up in a closet is that good enough.
His closet has the the hinges on the outside and the pins on the jinges can be pulled off with pliers. Im just sure this wont pass federal mustard.

Im yhinking he will need a steel vault with a combination that he knows.

Any info on the requirements on how these items need to be stored?

Posted by: MidWestGuy | Jun 16, 2015 7:58:44 PM

MidWestGuy: Your friend's son will likely be prohibited from possessing guns and ammo, and could face significant penalties if he does. He should clarify exactly what prohibitions apply (which may vary depending on the Court that sentenced him and the specific conviction) while planning his release--I'd suggest he write to the probation/parole authority that will supervise him with the question. When release is closer and an officer is assigned, they will likely visit the release residence--whoever they meet with while there should make sure the officer is aware of the guns and ammo and seek guidance on what should be done with them while your son lives there. Your son should also clarify whether the restrictions apply just during community supervision, or for the rest of his life. This is a complicated issue with significant consequences. He shouldn't rely on internet forums or the experiences of friends for guidance--he should get written explanations from the agency supervising him, and seek legal advice if they aren't clear enough for him.

Posted by: USPOesq | Jun 17, 2015 11:31:06 AM

USPOesq ,

I was under the impression that MidWestGuy was talking about his friend being the owner not the son.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jun 17, 2015 3:36:51 PM

The problems at and disappointing results from CP 14 are mostly due to the first criterion -- would the sentence be different today. That criterion of course assumes that we've now made the federal sentencing process a fair one, which is an absurd premise for a clemency project. And yet the CP 14 personnel are unwilling to re-open the discussion of this criterion or somehow scale it back. A much better alternative would be to look at the overall sentence and ask if it's just too long. That is surely what President Obama is ultimately interested in, as opposed to dwelling on the finer points of federal sentencing law. But the latter is what CP 14 has become all about.

Posted by: Atticus | Jun 18, 2015 8:42:06 AM


I don't think it's at all accurate to say Obama wishes them to look at the sentences and decide if they are just or not. I believe he wants political cover, while not actually doing anything. This process will do quite nicely for that.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jun 18, 2015 4:12:11 PM


Haha, I am just as cynical as apparently you are (well, almost). But Obama did grant 22, right? I'd be real interested to see if he did it because there was a technical Alleyne violation (um, no) or because the sentences were just way too long? I think if CP 14 analyzes the grants (which, shockingly, they do not appear to have done) they will see it's the latter. Letting this process get bogged down on Apprendi, Booker, Alleyne, and what judge the defendant happened to get assigned to is totally unworkable, and I doubt if push came to shove the administration would really insist on that.

Posted by: Atticus | Jun 19, 2015 8:18:26 AM

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