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FAQs on Clemency Petitions in Federal Cases – Attorney Insights

By Spodek Law Group | October 20, 2023
(Last Updated On: October 20, 2023)

Last Updated on: 20th October 2023, 01:56 pm


FAQs on Clemency Petitions in Federal Cases – Attorney Insights

Getting clemency or a pardon for a federal crime is a long and complicated process. As an attorney whose handled these types of cases, I get a lot of questions from clients about how it works and what their chances are. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the most common FAQs I get on federal clemency petitions:

What is clemency?

Clemency is when the President or Governor forgives someone for a crime they committed. It wipes the conviction from their record. The most common types of clemency are:

  • A pardon – this forgives the crime completely
  • Commutation – this shortens a prison sentence
  • Reprieve – this delays an execution

The President can only grant clemency for federal crimes. The Governor can grant clemency for state crimes. My experience is with federal clemency petitions.

Who is eligible for clemency?

Anyone convicted of a federal crime can apply for clemency. But for it to have a decent chance, you usually need to meet a few criteria:

  • You’ve already served a significant part of your sentence
  • You have a clean disciplinary record in prison
  • There are humanitarian or fairness reasons for clemency in your case

Even if you meet the criteria, approval is rare. Out of thousands of petitions, only a handful get approved each year. The bar is very high.

When should I apply?

There’s no one “right” time to apply. But in my experience, your chances improve if you wait until:

  • At least 5 years of an long sentence have been served
  • At least 3 years of a shorter sentence have been served
  • You’re within 18 months of release

Applying too early when too much of your sentence remains rarely succeeds. The administration wants to see you served a significant chunk already.

How does the process work?

Here are the typical steps in a federal clemency case:

  1. You submit the petition and supporting documents to the Office of the Pardon Attorney.
  2. They review it and send an investigator to interview you and look at your file.
  3. The Pardon Attorney makes a recommendation to the President – approve, deny, or no position.
  4. If approved, it goes to the President for final decision.
  5. The President personally signs off on all clemencies.

The process takes around 2 years from start to Presidential decision. It’s long because the Pardon Attorney gets over 1,000 petitions a year to review.

What should the petition include?

A strong petition has:

  • Background facts on your case
  • Your employment history
  • Education history
  • Rehabilitation efforts
  • Remorse and personal responsibility
  • Letters of support from family, friends, employers

It needs to paint a picture of you as someone deserving of mercy. Focus on the positive steps you’ve taken since the crime.

Do I need a lawyer?

Having a lawyer helps – but it’s not required. The Pardon Attorney will review pro se petitions from applicants representing themselves. But having an experienced attorney prepare your petition improves the odds a great deal.

A lawyer knows how to strategically present your case, gather evidence and letters, and navigate the process. We’ve handled these cases before and know what arguments work.

What are the main reasons clemency gets denied?

The most common reasons petitions get rejected:

  • Not enough time served yet
  • Disciplinary issues in prison
  • Downplaying responsibility for the crime
  • Not demonstrating remorse and rehabilitation
  • Severity of the crime

Any disciplinary citations on your record while incarcerated seriously hurt your chances. Taking full responsibility is also critical.

What are my chances of success?

It’s hard to predict. But to give you an idea – out of over 1,000 petitions per year, only around 50-100 get approved. So it’s around a 5-10% success rate overall. Those aren’t great odds.

But it varies case by case. Factors like the severity of the crime, your rehabilitation efforts, and support from the judge/prosecutor impact the odds. I can give you a better estimate after reviewing your specifics.

How much does a petition cost?

My firm charges a flat fee around $15,000 to prepare and file a federal clemency petition. This includes my time reviewing your case, drafting the petition, gathering letters of support, communicating with the Pardon Attorney, and walking you through the process.

I also offer payment plans, so you don’t have to pay the entire amount upfront. My goal is to make experienced representation affordable.

Is there anything I should do to improve my chances?

A few things that can really help:

  • Complete educational classes in prison
  • Get a clean disciplinary record
  • Get a job and work history in prison
  • Remain in contact with family
  • Express remorse to the judge/prosecutor

Anything showing you’ve turned your life around and become a role model prisoner boosts your odds. It shows the maturity necessary for clemency.

What if my petition gets denied – can I appeal?

Unfortunately there is no formal appeal process for a denied clemency petition. The President’s decision is final. Your only recourse is to apply again later on, after some time has passed. You can submit a improved petition making a better case for yourself.

But most applicants only get one bite at the apple. So it’s important to put your best foot forward the first time.

Should I ask the judge/prosecutor for support?

Getting support from the judge or prosecutor is extremely helpful. A letter from the judge or prosecutor backing clemency can make all the difference.

Don’t be afraid to write to them asking for their support. Explain how you’ve changed and why you deserve clemency. If they see true remorse and rehabilitation, they may agree to write a letter on your behalf.

But their support is not guaranteed. Some judges/prosecutors refuse clemency requests out of principle. So don’t get your hopes up too much – focus on putting together the strongest petition possible.

What else increases my chances?

A few other things that boost your odds:

  • Having an attorney
  • Letters of support from prominent people
  • Media coverage/public pressure on your case
  • Humanitarian reasons for clemency
  • Unfairness or errors in your original case

Anything that puts the spotlight on your case and makes it stand out from the hundreds of other petitions can help.

What should I do now?

My advice would be to start gathering documents on your case, employment history, education, etc. so your attorney has everything they need.

Also start lining up people willing to write letters of support. Get their contact info, relationship to you, etc. so your attorney can reach out when it’s time.

And of course, focus on maintaining a clean record and doing anything you can to better yourself while incarcerated. The clemency petition is just one part of the process – you need to show you’ve turned your life around.

If you have any other questions, don’t hesitate to reach out. I’m happy to help explain the clemency process and assess your chances. Consulting with me puts you under no obligation to hire me for your petition. My goal is to provide you the information you need to make an informed decision either way.

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