This week the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation (CJPF) published the nation's first compilation of state-by-state and federal information on executive clemency for prisoners. There are approximately 1.3 million incarcerated persons now serving state sentences and 120,000 sentenced federal prisoners. Tens of thousands of persons are serving sentences that have been criticized as draconian, due to mandatory minimum sentencing and other criminal justice excesses. CJPF's clemency guide is available at http://www.cjpf.org online.
CJPF pointed in a press release to the fraudulent mass drug prosecutions in Tulia, Texas, in which many defendants plead guilty even though they were innocent, as part of plea bargains enabling them to avoid decades-long sentences. Those who plead guilty are almost never able to appeal their sentences -- even if they are in fact innocent, as is the case in Tulia. Receiving an excessively long sentence is not a basis for an appeal; hence for such prisoners, often the only remedy is executive clemency.
CJPF also pointed out the case of Maryann Gomez-Velasquez, sentenced to 25 ½ years in prison because she was addicted to Tylenol with Codeine and forged pain medication prescriptions to feed her addiction. Gov. Gary Johnson (R) of New Mexico commuted her sentence, stating that "[o]ur drug laws have become so irrational that we actually hand out harsher penalties for forging Tylenol with codeine prescriptions than we do for killing people" (http://www.governor.state.nm.us/2002/news/jul/070202CommutesSentence.htm).
CJPF's clemency guide provides information on the procedure to obtain clemency and commutation of sentence in the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, as well as the federal procedure. It gives prisoners, their attorneys and their families the information they need to apply for an early release from a state or federal prison sentence. Sample application forms are provided for some states and the federal government.
Every state has a mechanism, usually at the governor's discretion, to reduce the sentence of a deserving prisoner, similar to the constitutional power of the President of the United States for federal offenses (Article II, Section 2). But these procedures must be initiated by the prisoner, therefore they and their families and supporters need to know what these procedures are.
In 2000, CJPF spearheaded a campaign to commute the sentences of lowlevel non-violent federal drug offenders. Before he left office, President Bill Clinton commuted the sentences of 21 such prisoners. While there are over 120,000 sentenced federal prisoners, there are more than 10 times that number of state prisoners. Prison operating costs are significant burdens on the taxpayers of many states, which the economy is currently aggravating.
"We are at a historical moment in which a spirit of justice and compassion is aligned with the necessity to save tax revenues for high priority matters. Clemency enables governors to save hundreds of thousands of dollars and to mitigate the excesses of the criminal justice system, especially the long sentences of low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. CJPF believes the nation needs an easy way to learn the unique and often complex clemency procedures available in each state," said CJPF president Eric Sterling.
There were 1,236,476 persons incarcerated in state prisons by December, 2000, with the number constantly growing. The number of imprisoned drug offenders is estimated to be in the range of 400,000 persons. Many states have mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenses that have been widely criticized by judges and correctional officials because they result in unjustly long sentences. Prisoners sentenced under such laws are often ideal candidates for release to the community.
"We want ex-offenders to rebuild their families and their lives, and to contribute positively to the community and the economy. Keeping people in prison too long is counterproductive as well as wasteful. Common sense tells us: when vital services have to be cut to meet shrinking state revenues, it is time to release prisoners who no longer belong there," said Sterling.