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January 31, 2014

Professor/practitioner perspective on DAG Cole's puzzling clemency conversation

Nearly everyone I know invested in the modern debate over federal clemency policies and practice have been intrigued and puzzled by the clemency comments made by Deputy Attorney General James Cole yesterday at the New York State Bar Association Annual Meeting (basis here and here). Helpfully, Professor Mark Osler agreed to write up his thoughts for posting here in order to provide a thoughtful perspective on that DAG Cole's comments might mean and portend:

Since starting a federal commutations clinic a few years ago, I’ve become fascinated by the clemency process. For those of us who care deeply about the constitutional pardon power, the speech by Deputy Attorney General Jim Cole in New York was a bombshell. In short, Cole announced that President Obama’s grant of eight commutations in December was just a “first step,” and that “there was more to be done.”  This isn’t subtle signaling; it is a bold and admirable announcement that the administration plans to use the pardon power systemically to address over-incarceration in narcotics cases. This is great news for those serving such sentences, sure, but it also is a remarkable moment for the pardon power itself, which has not played such an important and principled role in the justice system for decades.

There are some open questions, though. Cole said the December commutations were a “first step,” and outlined generally what the second step will be — an apparent move to funnel many more cases through the existing process. Cole described three parts of this process. First, the Bureau of Prisons will advise inmates of their right to petition for clemency and then direct inmates who respond to bar associations that are willing to help prepare petitions. Second, bar associations will then coordinate the preparation of these petitions. Third, a member of Cole’s staff will coordinate all of this.

If it works, this will result in a flood of petitions being sent to the federal pardon attorney, a DOJ functionary. Therein lies the rub. The pardon attorney, and the rest of the process between the pardon attorney and the President, has hardly been a model of efficiency. In December, those eight commutations and thirteen pardons that were granted were dwarfed by what currently clogs the pipeline — over 3,500 petitions for clemency are currently unresolved. Presumably, these new petitions will take their place at the bottom of that large pile.

At best, this will all work out somehow — there might be a plan to improve the process that we don’t know about. At worst, Cole is waving more traffic onto a jammed freeway, without first clearing the wrecks and opening the exit ramps.

Generating more clemency petitions is a good thing, but it needs to be accompanied by an administration plan to process and grant more petitions. Gerald Ford did this efficiently by creating a Presidential Clemency Board, which evaluated thousands of clemency petitions from Vietnam-era draft evaders and Army deserters. Ford’s Board did this in exactly one year, at low cost. That model should be used here. If the freeway isn’t moving, adding more cars won’t help much.

January 31, 2014 at 11:14 AM | Permalink

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#James Cole Clemency Speech.… A worthy petitioner, TOLULOPE AKINROSOTU, my brother, deserves this clemency. Pls visit www.clemencyfortolu.com to learn more about his case.

Posted by: Akinrosotu Oluwatosin | Feb 1, 2014 8:04:06 AM

A worthy Federal Prisoner for Clemency who saved the life of a Bureau of Prisons Staff Member has served 21 years of a 30 year sentence. www.clemencyfortolu.com

A review of the petition submitted to President Obama more than a year ago still sits on a desk someplace in Washington DC.

I am a private business owner with more then 25 years of law study and private free assistance to numerous federal and military inmates.

Posted by: Clyde Mansfield | Mar 13, 2014 9:26:38 PM

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