Washington – Within hours of Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement of a new clemency program for nonviolent prisoners, Bridgeport Attorney Frank Riccio was flooded by calls from family members of the incarcerated seeking help.
Riccio, who specializes in federal criminal cases, said he hadn’t been even aware of a change in policy until he received the first call, from the sister of a Bridgeport man serving an 11-year sentence for a crack cocaine drug conviction.
“I did not even know this announcement had taken place,” Riccio said of Holder’s decision, made public last week. “Word travels fast.”
Riccio said he quickly did some research and determined the new policy could free up to 200 prisoners who were convicted in federal court in Connecticut, including the client serving the 11-year sentence on drug charges and at least two other clients.
The new clemency policy requires a prisoner to serve at least 10 years of a sentence so Riccio’s client would be spared only one year of jail time. But that doesn’t matter, Riccio said.
“With many of these ladies and gentlemen who are serving these long sentences, every little bit helps,” he said.
The new policy also requires those applying for clemency to have no history of violence before or during their imprisonment. They must also be likely to receive a substantially lower sentence for their crimes if convicted of the same offense today.
The policy is in response to an omission in the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which aimed to reduce the vast sentencing difference between convictions for crack and powder cocaine, a gap that had a tremendous impact on African Americans.
But the 2010 law was not retroactive. It did nothing for drug offenders sentenced before it took effect.
The new policy change is also part of the administration’s policy to relieve overcrowding in federal prisons.
Late last year, President Obama commuted the sentences of eight crack-cocaine offenders who had been serving lengthy sentences that would have been shortened under the Fair Sentencing Act. And earlier this month, Obama commuted the sentence of another former drug prisoner whose jail term was lengthened as a result of a typo.
Holder said he expects “thousands” of applications for clemency as a result of the expanded criteria. While Holder did not say exactly how many, there are estimates some 7,000 to 8,000 prisoners across the country could be released.
“We can’t speculate on the number of prisoners who will apply,” said Bureau of Prisons spokesman Ed Ross.
Holder also announced the formation of a new Office of the Pardon Attorney, to be headed by Justice Department lawyer Deborah Leff.
But Riccio said there still are many questions about how the clemency program will work – and how quickly prisoners will be released.
“You can’t dangle this apple in front of them forever,” he said.
For Megan Quattlebaum, Senior Liman Fellow in Residence at Yale Law School, the Obama administration clemency policy is “a great step, but hardly scratches the surface” because sentencing laws will not be changed.
She has a client serving a 10-year mandatory sentence on a methamphetamine conviction because police found a bucket of wastewater from the drug’s production in his garage, and the judge at sentencing considered the amount of water to be equal to an equivalent amount of the drug.
“To me, he’s emblematic of how far we have to go,” Quattlebaum said.
The Bureau of Prisons will begin notifying inmates this week about the new initiative and about the availability of pro bono lawyers from the Clemency Project 2014.
Launched in January, the Clemency Project 2014 is a group composed of federal defenders, the American Civil Liberties Union, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Bar Association, and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
“Our federal sentencing laws have shattered families and wasted millions of dollars,” said Vanita Gupta, ACLU deputy legal director. “Too many people—particularly people of color—have been locked up for far too long for nonviolent offenses.”
Connecticut has only one federal prison, the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, A low-security facility with an adjacent minimum security satellite camp. The Danbury prison holds female inmates, but most of them are being moved to other facilities to provide room for male prisoners.
Ross, the prison bureau spokesman, said men who receive federal sentences in Connecticut had been farmed out to prisons across the nation. Although the BOP tried to place inmates within a 500-mile radius, “but that doesn’t always happen,” he said.
Ross said there are 240 inmates in Danbury right now. If they reflect national statistics, about half would have been incarcerated for drug crimes.