NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey today announced the launch of The Clemency Project as part of a larger decarcerative vision that centers racial and social justice and reimagines the criminal legal system. More than a year in the making, The Clemency Project will focus on leveraging categorical clemency, a process that allows the governor to consider holistic injustices that have impacted groups of people and consider relief for each person within the identified class.  

The ACLU-NJ's announcement follows comments from Governor Murphy at the State of the State and on the Feb. 12, 2024 “Ask Governor Murphy” segment on WNYC where the Governor told audiences that a formal announcement about clemency is coming soon, and that he supports a categorical approach which will have a “revolutionary” impact on the state. 

“We launched The Clemency Project because reviewing unjust and extreme sentences must be the expectation, not the exception,“ said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha. “By taking a categorical approach to clemency, hundreds of more people who no longer need to be in prison will be eligible for expedited review, and eventually, release. We are encouraged by Governor Murphy’s promise of this approach, as we must utilize every tool available to us to end mass incarceration. With just under two years left in the Governor’s administration, we are eager to work with him to use his broad clemency power to further address the harms of an unjust criminal legal system.” 

The Clemency Project has begun with a focus on petitioning for the release of incarcerated survivors of domestic violence and those who are serving sentences impacted by extreme trial penalties – a reference to people who are serving significantly longer sentences because they opted to exercise their constitutional right to a trial rather than agreeing to a prosecutor’s plea offer.  

“The Clemency Project has already begun working with incarcerated survivors of domestic violence who have been denied the opportunity to express their trauma within the criminal legal system,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. “We are laying the groundwork to represent people sentenced with extreme trial penalties. No one should be saddled with significantly harsher punishment for exercising their constitutional right.” 

“The ACLU launched the Redemption Campaign to restore the good governance process of clemency into the fabric of justice systems across the United States,” said ACLU National Redemption Campaign Senior Campaign Strategist Tara Stutsman. “The work of the ACLU of New Jersey to build an equitable clemency process on a broad scale is encouraging and necessary. We applaud Governor Murphy, his team, and the ACLU of New Jersey in their work to prioritize clemency.” 

As part of the project, ACLU-NJ attorneys are identifying and meeting with currently incarcerated potential clients with lived experience in the identified categories, reviewing case files, and authoring petitions for release. 

“Clemency means more than mercy. This is a lifeline for the individuals that we have met with,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Uwakwe. “Our project is a focused effort to mitigate injustice and it may be the last opportunity for incarcerated people to come home and reconnect with their families and communities. In a state with the nation’s highest racial disparities in prisons, this is fundamental to racial justice and repairing the harms of mass incarceration.”  

The ACLU-NJ is dedicated to reducing the state’s incarcerated population and has celebrated success alongside the Legislature and the Murphy administration including the legalization of cannabis for adult use and the passage of the Public Health Emergency Credit law, which allowed for the early release of thousands of incarcerated people during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Clemency Project aims to continue this decarcerative success and move New Jersey closer to being a fair and equitable state for all who call it home.