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December 10, 2021

Pressley, Bush, Jeffries, Advocates Unveil Historic Bill to Transform Broken Clemency System, Address Mass Incarceration Crisis

Bill Establishes Independent U.S. Clemency Board to Review Applications, Transmit Recommendations Directly to President

Bill Text | Bill Summary | Press Conference 

WASHINGTON – Today, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (MA-07), along with Congresswoman Cori Bush (MO-01), Congressman Hakeem Jeffries (NY-08) and grassroots advocates, unveiled the Fair and Independent Experts in Clemency (FIX Clemency) Act, historic legislation to transform our nation’s broken clemency system and address the growing mass incarceration crisis. 

The bill, which the lawmakers unveiled at a press conference earlier today, is the latest legislation informed by Rep. Pressley’s People’s Justice Guarantee, her comprehensive, decarceration-focused resolution that outlines a framework for a fair, equitable and just legal system. 

“Our growing mass incarceration crisis is rooted in white supremacy and has ravaged our communities, destabilized families, and exacerbated generational trauma for far too long,” said Rep. Pressley. “Our bill would confront this crisis head-on by transforming our broken clemency system—which is plagued by secrecy, inefficiency, and systemic bias—and instead centering justice, equity, and transparency. Justice delayed is justice denied, and I’m grateful to Reps. Bush, Jeffries, and our advocates for their partnership on a bill that sets us on a pathway towards decarceration and healing.” 

“Congress and the Biden Administration have an obligation to end the era of mass criminalization,” said Congresswoman Cori Bush. “2021 marks the first increase in 8 years of our federal prison population — that’s nearly a decade of progress that has been wiped out. As Vice Chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, I’m working to advance decarceral solutions that will bring thousands of people home to their communities. That’s why I’m proud to introduce the FIX Clemency Act with my colleagues Reps. Pressley and Jeffries. Our clemency system is broken. When it comes to decarceration, communities like my own in St. Louis that have been devastated by mass incarceration and a failed war on drugs cannot stand for any more excuses. President Biden can grant clemency with a stroke of pen and this bill will help him do that. By establishing an independent board to clear the backlog of 18,000 clemency petitions, our bill will ensure that humanity, compassion, and love for our community members are at the center of our policy work. This important legislation will save lives.” 

“Fueled by the failed war on drugs, the mass incarceration epidemic that our nation faces has ruined lives, families and communities,” said Congressman Jeffries. “Our broken clemency system only deepens this pain, and we must transform it in a just, equitable and transparent manner. The FIX Clemency Act does just that by creating an independent U.S. Clemency Board to fairly review applications. I thank Rep. Pressley for her tremendous leadership in introducing this important bill, unwavering commitment to justice and fierce advocacy on behalf of the least, the lost and the left behind.” 

The President’s clemency authority is a powerful tool to reduce the federal prison population and rectify the injustices created by the criminal legal system, but the current process for reviewing clemency applications is inherently flawed, severely burdensome, and contributes to America’s mass incarceration crisis. Because the clemency process is within the Department of Justice (DOJ), it is greatly influenced by law enforcement and prosecutorial interests, and includes redundant levels of scrutiny by DOJ staff who can unilaterally prevent a clemency application from reaching the President. 

To help address the backlog of over 15,000 pending clemency applications, the FIX Clemency Act would create an independent U.S. Clemency Board (Board) that is made up of nine individuals appointed by the President, including a person who is formerly incarcerated. The Board would be responsible for reviewing applications requesting a pardon, commutation, or relief from collateral consequences of convictions. All recommendations by the Board will be transmitted directly to the President and included in an annual report to Congress.

An in-depth summary of the bill is available here, and the bill text can be viewed here

Joining Reps. Pressley, Bush and Jeffries in co-sponsoring the bill are Reps. Steve Cohen, Jan Schakowsky, Rashida Tlaib, Andre Carson, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bonnie Watson Coleman, Karen Bass, Ilhan Omar, Jesus “Chuy” García, Troy Carter, Mondaire Jones, Emanuel Cleaver, Jamaal Bowman, Henry C. Johnson and Dwight Evans.  

The FIX Clemency Act is endorsed by: Families for Justice as Healing; Black and Pink Massachusetts; Lawyers for Civil Rights; Movement 4 Black Lives; National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls; NAACP; Abolitionist Law Center; American Civil Liberties Union; We Got Us Now; Americans for Prosperity; Third Way; The Thurman Perry Foundation; Amnesty International USA; Bend the Arc: Jewish Action; Black & Pink National; Braxton Institute; CAN-DO Foundation; Civil Rights Corps; Common Justice; Prison Policy Initiative; R Street Institute; Dream Corps JUSTICE; Fair and Just Prosecution; Get Clemency Now; Life for Pot; MoveOn; The Taifa Group; The Weldon Project; Tzedek Association; Federal Public and Community Defenders. 

“Clemency is not a gift. Receiving It should not be like winning the lottery. Clemency is a power given to the President so he or she can be the ‘fail safe in the mechanism of justice.’ There are thousands of women in the BOP who are elderly, ill, survivors of domestic violence, and long-timers who need to come home,” said Catherine Sevcenko, Senior Counsel at the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. “The DOJ has a backlog of 15,000 applications. Some people have been waiting for years for any indication that the Pardon Attorney even knows they exist. The FIX Act is desperately needed to take the clemency power out of the Department of Justice and give it to an independent Commission with the sole purpose of recommending — not denying — clemency. Without the FIX Act, our legal system will never earn the right to be called a justice system.” 

“The Fix Clemency Act is life changing legislation that will begin to help repair current and former harm to those who have suffered at the hands of an unjust system,” said Qiana Johnson of Movement for Black Lives and co-conductor of Harriet’s Wildest Dreams and founder of Life After Release Inc. “As a formerly incarcerated person, I know firsthand how catastrophic imprisonment can be both for those who are incarcerated, as well as for their  loved ones and communities. The establishment of an independent clemency review board will provide greater transparency and representation in a system set up to target and oppress Black people. It’s a much needed step forward for ending our mass incarceration crisis and reimagining public safety.” 

“Clemency has long been an underutilized executive tool to secure the release of incarcerated individuals,” said Michael Cox of Black and Pink Massachusetts. “Representative Presley once again demonstrates her commitment to creating a more just country. The FIX Clemency Act is a bold step forward to ensure there is a path to release for LGBTQ+, elderly, medically compromised and otherwise vulnerable groups of people and those who received an unjust criminal sentence.” 

“I’ve experienced the clemency process for myself during my incarceration in federal prison and, following my commutation and pardon, as an activist on behalf of other deserving men and women,” said Alice Marie Johnson, Founder and CEO of Taking Action for Good. “While I am grateful that I and many of those I supported received commutations and pardons, the system has failed too many other deserving people and is in dire need of reform. That’s why I support the FIX Clemency Act. The FIX Clemency Act would take the federal clemency review process out of the Justice Department and place responsibilities for reviewing commutations and pardons with an independent board, limiting the influence of prosecutors to scuttle freedom for unnecessarily incarcerated men and women. This, and other reforms, would help ensure that justice and mercy, not punishment and retribution, are the board’s primary goals. I urge all members of Congress—both Democrats and Republicans—to support this important legislation.” 

“Federal clemency is in crisis with nearly 16,000 petitions stacked up awaiting a ruling,” said Mark Osler of the Braxton Institute. “Process is the problem. This bill fixes it.” 

“It is high-time we fix our broken federal clemency system, and that is what this bill will do,” said Rabbi Moshe Margaretten, President of Tzedek Association. “Keeping the Pardon Attorney’s office in the DOJ is a clear conflict of interest and is the very cause for the backlog of thousands of petitions. There is no question that the President, any President, would be better served with a committee he or she chooses made of members from diverse backgrounds who would give the President recommendations based on their broad life experiences. We urge Congress to support this bill with great enthusiasm.” 

Earlier this year, Congresswoman Pressley and Congresswoman Bush headlined a rally with the National Council For Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls at which they urged President Biden to grant clemency to 100 women in his first 100 days. 

Under the framework of the People’s Justice Guarantee, Rep. Pressley has also introduced legislation to end the federal death penalty, dismantle mass incarceration for the public health, and disrupt the school-to-confinement pathway

Rep. Pressley has also urged President Biden to use his authority to halt federal executions and commute the sentences of those on death row, and has urged the Trump Administration and governors to adopt guidelines for decarceration to reduce the prison population during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In September, Rep. Pressley joined Reps. Bush, Bonnie Watson Coleman (NJ-12), David Trone (MD-06) and Pramila Jayapal (WA-07) and over 20 of their colleagues in sending a letter to the Biden Administration urging the President to commute the sentences of the more than 4,000 people who were released on home confinement in 2020 as part of an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.