In the early months of 2014, President Obama announced an initiative to grant clemency to nonviolent offenders serving long prison sentences. More than 35,000 inmates — about 16 percent of the federal prison population — have applied to have their sentences shortened under the Justice Department-led program. In order sort through the influx of applications, the department has recruited pro bono attorneys.

More than 1,000 lawyers from 323 law firms and organizations nationwide are reviewing the applications.

The initiative followed President Obama’s 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which did away with the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for the simple possession of crack cocaine and reduced the disparity between convictions for crack and powder cocaine. But thousands of inmates are still serving federally mandated prison terms under the old sentencing laws.

“We had decades of harsh sentencing,” said Marjorie J. Peerce, a partner at Ballard Spahr in New York, whose lawyers have been screening clemency applications. “People were going to jail for decades because they were drug addicts selling a little bit of crack. There was such a disparity, and it was disproportionately affecting minorities.”

The process has been slow. The lawyers are dealing with clients with complex cases and a limited ability to communicate because they’re incarcerated. Most prisoners who requested assistance from the lawyers sent applications electronically through the Bureau of Prisons computers, but thousands who didn’t have computer access filled out paper applications that had to be manually entered into a database the attorneys have built.

Related Practice

Pro Bono