While none of the 46 men and women to whom President Obama granted clemency last week is from West Virginia, a group of students from WVU’s College of Law are working to change that.
“None of our cases have been acted on by the president yet, but we’re working on it and hoping, before the president leaves office, that he will grant [clemency] for our clients, as well,” said Valena Beety, a West Virginia University law professor, who is advising a group of about 30 WVU students who are working on a national project to help nonviolent prisoners get their lengthy sentences commuted.
WVU’s College of Law is working with Clemency Project 2014. The group also is composed of lawyers and advocates, including Federal Defenders, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, who are providing free legal assistance to federal prisoners — who have been behind bars for more than a decade — who would likely have received a shorter sentence if they were sentenced today.
“It’s pretty innovative that WVU is a part of this,” Beety said. “Our students have been investigating these cases, visiting with clients and gathering documents from federal courts in West Virginia.”
The U.S. Department of Justice announced the initiative in 2014 with specific criteria that must be met for a prisoner to qualify. The president has the final say in whether an inmate gets clemency or not.
An inmate who has the potential to be granted an early release, for example, must be serving prison time for a federal sentence, as opposed to one handed down by a state court. They must have a record of good behavior while they’ve been behind bars, had no significant previous criminal history before they went to prison and have served at least 10 years of their sentence already.
Most importantly, their crime must have been nonviolent. That’s why most of the cases that meet the criteria end up being drug cases, Beety said.
Specifically, those serving time for crack cocaine charges make up a lot of defendants who end up qualifying for early release.
In the past few years, Congress has worked to reduce the disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine, most prevalent in the 1980s. Previously, a sentence involving crack cocaine carried an extremely more severe sentence than the powder form of the drug.
People who qualify are “usually addicts and people who were selling to feed their addiction and got caught up in federal sentencing guidelines and are now, literally, serving twenty years, forty years and life sentences for possession of crack cocaine,” Beety said.
When an inmate sentenced in West Virginia files paperwork to see if he or she qualifies, WVU students delve into the time-consuming process of seeing if they meet the criteria to apply for clemency.
Determining the question, if an inmate were sentenced today would they receive a lesser sentence, is probably one of the most complicated parts of the process for students, according to Beety.
“We’ve been fortunate that the federal public defender’s offices in the northern and southern districts [of West Virginia] have looked at what [defendants’] sentences would have been today,” said Beety. “Federal sentencing guidelines are incredibly complicated.”
At least 30,000 inmates around the country have responded to a letter from the clemency project, Beety said. When someone from West Virginia responds, students are notified and asked if they can take the case.
“We only have so many students, so we work on cases and try to find out quickly if someone doesn’t meet the criteria because, then, we can take another case. We’ve had both people who meet the criteria and who don’t,” she said.
Students research and then submit a report to project officials. There are a number of committees with the project who review the report and decide whether attorneys or, in this case, WVU students should go ahead and draft a clemency petition.
The experience the project is providing the future lawyers is incomparable, Beety said.
“For some, this is the first contact they have with clients,” she said. “They are actually talking with someone incarcerated and learning about the prison system.”
While doing research in some of the cases in West Virginia, students have stumbled upon some pretty harsh realities.
Beety read a quote from a judge found in a transcript in a court file of one of the incarcerated clients of a student.
“ ‘In imposing this sentence, I have no discretion with respect to count one,” a crack cocaine possession charge, the judge wrote. ‘This, frankly, is a sad moment.’ ”
Beety continued: “Then the prosecutor says, ‘Very regrettably and unfortunately, he is still subject to life in custody on count one.’
“That’s from a case we will be submitting,” Beety said.
Reach Kate White at email@example.com, 304-348-1723 or follow @KateLWhite on Twitter.