Olivia Marshall │ Washington, D.C. — Vanderbilt Law School
Olivia Marshall is a law student in the class of 2018 from Washington, D.C. This summer, Olivia will work as a legal intern at the Office of the Pardon Attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice. Olivia will review clemency petitions from federal inmates to help determine whether inmates are eligible for executive clemency. Many inmates are non-violent drug offenders serving sentences that would be substantially lower if they were convicted of the same offense today.
Blog Post One:
In the couple weeks I’ve been working at the Office of the Pardon Attorney, I’ve already learned so much about criminal law and sentencing. Drug sentencing, for example, has changed drastically in the past few decades. In the 1980s, the War on Drugs was in full swing. Congress passed laws that created mandatory minimums for drug possession and a 100 to 1 sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine possession. This led to disproportionate numbers of arrests of black Americans, and the United States prison population ballooned.
In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), which reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine to 18 to 1. In 2011, the US Sentencing Commission voted to retroactively apply these new sentencing guidelines to those sentenced before the FSA was enacted. Part of my job involves identifying federal inmates who might benefit from this retroactive application of the FSA and would receive shorter sentences if they were sentenced under today’s guidelines.
Another change in sentencing law occurred when the Supreme Court decided United States v. Booker in 2005. The Court held that the Sentencing Guidelines were not mandatory but simply advisory. In other words, judges are now free to use their discretion to impose a sentence either within the Guidelines or above or below them. This allows judges to impose a sentence under the Guidelines if he or she believes the Guidelines sentence is too harsh.
In 2014, President Obama announced the Clemency Initiative, which prioritizes clemency applications from inmates who meet certain criteria, including that they are low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. On June 3, the President commuted the sentences of 42 inmates, bringing the total number of commutations to date to 348. Some of the June 3 commutations included inmates who were serving life imprisonment for possession with intent to distribute drugs.
My day-to-day responsibilities include reviewing clemency petitions and making recommendations as to whether a petitioner should receive clemency. Unfortunately, many in the United States view prisoners as faceless “bad guys” who deserve to be locked up and the key thrown away. But looking at these petitions just reinforces the fact that they are human beings, many of whom show genuine remorse and a wish to turn their lives around.