One very important asset when seeking clemency is the support of a Congress member or Senator.
If you want to reach out to your congress member and seek their support for someone you know or love who is seeking clemency here are a few tips:
TO BEGIN: You can either call, email or write a letter. I prefer calling or emailing. One advantage of emailing is you have a record of it, but my first approach is to usually call and engage someone over the phone. You may want to start off by asking if you can receive the contact information (email) to schedule an appointment. It’s a specific email you can send to the DC office about scheduling an appointment – EVEN if you want an appointment at the local office in your area. It usually has the name of the congress firstname.lastname@example.org Or, they may direct you to someone in the office that will help you with that. Either is fine. But if you are going to talk to someone on the phone, ask for the person who would normally handle issues about clemency, criminal justice reform, etc. so you don’t have to start all over with the staffer who oversees these matters. One friendly way to start off is, “I’ve been wanting to meet my Congresswo/man for a long time and have never had the opportunity.” And now, you have a matter that is urgent and time sensitive. President Obama is leaving office in 21 weeks – and you need their help!
If you don’t know how to address this issue, you may want to say, “I would like to speak to either my Congressman or someone on staff about helping me, by supporting my (friend, brother, sister, mother, fiancé’s) clemency petition.
- You may get auto-responses – such as: “The clemency petitioner should contact the Congress person in the area where they reside.” A good response might be: “Yes I know and they have done that (or will) but I’m contacting you because this is about me. I’m suffering and their incarceration has impacted my life and I need a resolution to this. It is causing me tremendous anguish, depression, suffering ??? so I would like to speak to my Congress member about the particulars of this situation and why it’s so important to me that this person receives “justice” through clemency. I want to explain why their sentence is offensive and needs to be corrected – we can’t wait for criminal justice reform to fix this problem. President Obama has recognized there is a problem with the way people were sentenced in the 80s and 90s and he’s trying to correct that through the pardon office. If someone will simply meet with me, I can provide more details about this case/person and why I personally want it to be resolved.” At the very least, stress that they should be willing to listen and THEN decide whether they will or will not help you. (Especially if you are a family member). You can taylor this to your own – but you get the drift. Don’t let them convince you that they cannot get involved.
- Some will actually say that Congress members CANNOT weigh in or interfere with a legal case. That is NOT TRUE! Again, very politely tell them that maybe they misunderstood – You are not asking them to interfere with a legal case – it is not being currently prosecuted – this case is OVER and there are no appeals. The Office of the Pardon Attorney accepts letters from ANYONE who wants to express an opinion or weigh in. You can offer to send them copies of MANY letters from Congress members if they still do not believe it – just nicely ask if they would like to see letters from other Congress members to assure them that it’s perfectly acceptable and even encouraged as along standing practice at OPA. I have about 16 letters I can scan and provide if actually needs to follow through and do that.
- It may help do say you are with the CAN-DO Foundation – just use your judgment. I have found situations where staffers ears perk up when you say you are with an organization or foundation and not just a family member isolated from any support group. Reason being, they never know how many members are with an organization and if they only help a family member – they don’t see it benefitting them, personally = but if they help someone who is with a foundation – it may do one of 2 things. The Foundation/organization will see them in a favorable light – especially come election time – and/or they may worry about being flooded by negative emails from the members of the organization. If you want, you can even say you are “A Guardian Angel with the CAN-DO Foundation which is a group of people who are assisting with this big clemency push – ask them if they have heard about the 562 people Pres. Obama has given clemency to – try to engage them on a friendly basis for as long as you can. Talk to them like you do a friend – say, “Isn’t that wonderful what he is doing – we are so proud of him, but there are only 21 weeks left and you are worried about your loved one!”
- Again, don’t be nervous – and chat them up as long as possible. Come across as very friendly – never antagonistic so they WANT to assist you. If you feel they are trying to dismiss you or give you the run around, ask the staffer where your Congress member stands on the current bill – the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015. If they don’t know, ask if your Congress person has read it and are they aware that Speaker Paul Ryan has pledged to bring it to the Senate floor in September – and you’d like to know how they are going to vote – do they support it. If they do not say, take that time to explain why it’s important and actually doesn’t go far enough. This bill has bi-partisan support and there is NO reason why it should not pass. The only people holding it up have been Senator Tom Cotton from AR and Senator Mitch McConnell from Kentucky! Have your talking points ready – explain that you don’t want your hard earned tax dollars paying for anymore prisons and you want people who are serving draconian sentences from the 80s and 90s to receive some relief! It’s shameful we incarcerate 25% of the world’s population! Then, pivot back to clemency!
- Offer to send something about the Sentencing Reform Bill to them if they seem clueless. Always be nice and professional and yet persistent. You should not take no for an answer and you can tell them that if they are unwilling to meet with you that you will probably reach out again soon, but with a group of people who feel the same way you do – and i hope you can find 2 or 3 who will join ranks. That’s how we got 17 politicians to support my clemency!
- There are some GREAT talking points in this Op Ed in The Hill by Adam Brandon. You can use them in your conversation if you like.
- When a Congress member or Senator writes or inquires into a clemency petition OPA has to divulge this information. They cannot conceal it – so it makes it more difficult for them to DENY someone’s petition that has received support from a politician. It’s not impossible, but at the very least it provides a level of insurance that protects the petitioner from being dismissed based merely on the petition, alone.
- It may take more than one try to trigger an appointment. Usually, it does. So, if you prefer, you can select to handle with repeating phone calls. Many times they will ask that the petitioner signs a release before they will inquire on their behalf or write a letter. If they say they will NOT write a letter, then ask if they would consider simply INQUIRING on behalf of you/the petitioner and let them know that others have had success receiving word from OPA about the “status of the petition” when a Congress member has been willing to simply inquire, whether by email or letter.