The president’s power to grant clemency is but one feature of a sentence-correction ecosystem. But the abolition of federal parole in the 1980s left the clemency power as the only way to correct lawfully imposed sentences for the simple reason that they are too damn long. This article is about another way to correct sentences for that simple reason, one that has been right there all along but was moribund for decades, and about a 2018 statute and a Debevoise & Plimpton pro bono project that breathed life into it. And it is a critical Article III complement to the Article II clemency power.
For the past five years, the Holloway Project at Debevoise has advocated for federal prisoners, overwhelmingly men of color, who were given bone-crushing sentences pursuant to the cruelest mandatory sentencing law the federal system had to offer. The typical Holloway Project client is a middle-aged man who was sentenced decades ago for robbery sprees in which a firearm was used but no one was hurt and little was stolen. In almost all of their cases, the indefensible sentences—often as not the equivalent of life without parole—had nothing to do with their culpability and everything to do with their refusals to cooperate and/or plead guilty.
This article describes the Holloway Project and how it has used what has become known colloquially as the “compassionate release” statute, 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A), and 2018’s First Step Act to persuade federal judges to undertake holistic, compassionate reevaluations of the men these incarcerated individuals have become after all their years in prison, and inject some humanity and justice into a sentencing regime that is still in desperate need of both.