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April 4, 2009

"The Fall of the Presidential Pardon"

The title of this post is the title of this effective piece on modern federal clemency realities sent my way by a helpful reader.  Here are a few lengthy excerpts from a lengthy article that justifies a full read:

Although all recent presidents have granted few pardons, Bush's rate was exceptionally low. He tied with his father for the lowest-ever percentage of granted pardons (conviction reversals) — 9.8 percent — and he granted an astonishingly tiny number of requested commutations (shortened sentences): 0.012 percent....

[A]lthough Bush disappointed some guilty crony hopefuls with his meager list of pardons and commutations, he disappointed a far greater number of long-serving prisoners with no other hope of release.  An ever-growing percentage of the US's 2.3 million prisoners — including more than half of the 200,000 inmates in federal prison - are drug offenders, many of them charged on vague counts of "conspiracy."  Since parole was abolished on the federal level in 1987, drug prisoners serving drastic sentences are told to apply for a presidential pardon: It's their only option....

With the stingy-pardoning Bush era in the past, many nonviolent lifers see the advent of the Obama presidency as a ray of hope.  His message of change and his immediate action toward closing the military prison at Guantanamo Bay are optimistic signs for Danielle Metz, a first-time nonviolent offender serving three life sentences plus 20 years for cocaine conspiracy.... As the Obama administration comes into its own, federal prisoners and justice policy experts alike are hoping he'll resurrect the presidential pardon, returning it to its intended place as a critical piece of the grand puzzle of the judicial system....

Although there have been a smattering of clemency grants for drug offenders in recent years, they don't add up to a policy statement disavowing the drug war — in fact, they may do the opposite, according to Tom Murlowski of the November Coalition, a nonprofit organization that combats drug war injustice.  Murlowski points to President Clinton, who commuted the sentences of 22 drug offenders on his last day in office, following up on a handful of previous drug-related clemency grants.

"There were thousands of cases as deserving, or more so, than the few that got released, and most of those drug offenders released were those that had some solid media support behind them — they had virtually all been featured in mainstream media in some way," Murlowski told Truthout.  "Our fear was that, when these few stories were featured and, ultimately commuted, it sent the erroneous message that these were isolated cases of drug war injustice, when the reality was a systemic injustice as a result of fundamentally flawed policies."...

Another little-noted factor has contributed to the dearth of recent pardons: The Office of the Pardon Attorney has long been underfunded and understaffed.  Clemency and pardon requests go through several steps before they reach the president — they must be investigated by government agencies, then reviewed by the pardon attorney, the attorney general and finally the president — and qualified support personnel at each of these levels is essential.

According to Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, more pardons might be granted if the department was simply funded adequately. "There's been a huge backlog under the [Bush] administration, which is basically a resource issue; not providing sufficient staff to review applications," Mauer told Truthout.

Instead of prompting more hires, the backlog has perpetuated a shoddy, negligent review process, according to former Pardon Attorney Love.  "These cases are not getting fully reviewed," Love told Truthout.  "It seems like the main objective of the current pardon attorney is to manage the backlog by getting rid of cases as soon as he can; turning them around at the door.  I've heard he's not even getting the pre-sentence report in most cases."

Compounding the situation, the pardon attorney in office for the past 10 years was known for discriminatory behavior, and was recently removed from office following accusations of racism.  A report by the department's inspector general stated that Pardon Attorney Roger Adams described a drug offender requesting a pardon as "about as honest as you could expect for a Nigerian.... Unfortunately, that's not very honest."

According to the inspector general's report, "Adams' comments — and his use of nationality in the decision-making process — were inappropriate." Considering most long-serving drug offenders are minorities, Adams's behavior calls into question the handling of the entire pardon evaluation process in recent years.

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April 4, 2009 at 12:03 PM | Permalink

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