James Felman, Kynes Markman & Felman, and Chair of the Criminal Justice Division at the American Bar Association. HANDOUT.
James Felman, Kynes Markman & Felman, and Chair of the Criminal Justice Division at the American Bar Association. HANDOUT. (Elizabeth Byrd)

When criminal defense attorney James Felman calls down to the Cole­man Penitentiary in Florida to inform his clients that their clemency petitions have been granted, he said the experience is sometimes a little awkward.

Surrounded by guards in the warden’s office­­ —where prisoners are typically brought if they are in trouble or a loved one has died—the inmate may not exactly feel free to celebrate, Felman said.

“It’s not like they can start dancing,” he said.

Felman, a partner at Kynes Markman & Felman in Tampa, saw five of his clients granted clemency on Aug. 3, when President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 214 inmates—the highest number a president has ever granted in a single day. The move comes amid a broader effort by the president to reduce sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. Since 2010, Obama has granted 562 commutations and 70 pardons, more commutations than the last nine presidents combined.

Of Felman’s clients to receive clemency last week, all were men convicted on nonviolent drug charges. The commutations varied in leniency, with some sentences shortened from life to a number of years. One of his clients, Eric Lemon, will walk free on Dec. 1 of this year, after his sentence for a conspiracy to distribute cocaine charge was shortened.

“You can’t imagine a more rewarding experience as a lawyer,” Felman said.

Felman, whose firm has successfully advocated for 12 clemency petitions, served as the chair of the American Bar Association Section of Criminal Justice from 2014 to 2015, and is a member of the steering committee for the Clemency Project 2014, a working group of lawyers who review clemency petitions. Through the project, inmates who qualify for clemency under the guidelines are assigned a lawyer, who works the case pro bono.

The project seeks inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes, such as drug offenses, with good prison records, no gang affiliations, who have already served more than 10 years in prison, and who, if sentenced today, would likely have received less time. When the project first launched in January 2014, 37,000 interested inmates were surveyed to evaluate their potential eligibility for clemency.

Marjorie Peerce, a New York partner at Ballard Spahr and a member of the project’s steering committee, has been involved with the project since its inception, and supervises about 100 lawyers at her firm who work these cases. She estimated that the project had submitted about 1,500 petitions to the U.S. Office of the Pardon Attorney and had about 4,000 lawyers volunteering, both from criminal defense backgrounds and from unrelated fields.

“The private bar really stepped up,” Peerce said. Her firm had three clients granted clemency on Aug. 3, but she declined to discuss their cases specifically.

Sherrie Armstrong, a Washington environmental lawyer at Crowell & Moring, worked on behalf of Stephanie George, who had her life sentenced commuted in December 2013. Armstrong worked with George’s sister to collect recommendation letters, including letters from a community pastor, an interested employer and George’s children. Armstrong added that the writing style demanded by these clemency petitions differs from that of her normal style as an environmental lawyer.

“You’re not writing for a court. It’s a more persuasive, emotional appeal,” she said.

Bruce Khula of Squire Patton Boggs, who oversees the Cleveland office’s pro bono work with the Clemency Project, said that an inmate’s background can be the key to a clemency petition.

You want to “put together a compelling picture about how these clients really merited consideration for clemency and why they should be considered good candidates,” Khula said. Two of Khula’s clients were granted clemency on Aug. 3: Ervin Worthy and Derrick Glass. Worthy, who has served more than 20 years of a life sentence, is set to be released in August 2017 and Glass, who has served more than a decade of a 20-year sentence , is set for release on Dec. 1.

Caprice Jenerson, a staff attorney with the Clemency Project, said the biggest challenge in filing clemency petitions is that they often need to move swiftly. With only six months left until the next presidential administration takes over, she pointed out, there has been a recent push to file as many clemency petitions as quickly as possible. Four of Jenerson’s clients saw their sentences commuted last week—two with new release dates of Dec. 1, 2016, one with a new release date in 2018 following the completion of a drug treatment program, and a fourth whose original life sentence was reduced to a finite number of months.

Jenerson, who worked as a criminal defense lawyer for nearly two decades prior to joining the Clemency Project in 2015, also has 12 clemency petitions currently pending. She said that the opportunity to help prisoners with their clemency petitions—and then calling them with good news if they’re granted—has been “life-changing.”

“It’s very emotional for me. With every call that I make, I’m holding back tears,” she said. “I’ve always done this work, but now I’m certain this will always be the work that I do.”