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February 4, 2014

Reflecting on Obama Administration's latest "half-way" approach to clemency

Mark Osler authored this effective commentary concerning the recent comments coming from the Department of Justice concerning a new focus on granting clemency.  The piece carries the headline "Only half-way there on mercy," and here are excerpts:

In an extraordinary speech to the New York State Bar Association earlier this week, Deputy Attorney General James Cole did two significant things.

First, he announced that when President Obama used the pardon power in December to commute eight lengthy federal sentences for narcotics trafficking, this was only a “first step,” and that there is “more to be done.”  Second, he outlined how a much more extensive round of commutations might happen.  The first of these was historic, remarkable, and right. The second part is more problematic.

The good news is that this administration, unlike its most recent predecessors, intends to use the pardon power in a vigorous and principled way....

The method Cole outlined to produce more commutations is where the problem lies.  The administration intends to have the Bureau of Prisons spur inmates to seek commutations and then encourage state bar associations to direct their members to prepare petitions for those inmates.

Cole made this appeal to deputize lawyers in a very direct way during his New York speech  — telling the bar association there that “this is where you can help.”  The hope is that, in the end, this will produce a wave of good candidates for commutation.

Unfortunately, this solution doesn’t address the actual problem with federal clemency. No one has suggested that what is broken with the pardon power is that there aren’t enough petitions in the system — to the contrary, there is a backlog of some 3,500 clemency petitions awaiting a decision.

The problem is that the process doesn’t work.  The pipeline is clogged, and the solution can’t be simply to jam more things into it.  The present structure for consideration of these often-complicated petitions has done a terrible job handling the workload it has now; it’s unclear how giving the pardon attorney and the others who consider these petitions even more work is supposed to solve the problem. Increasing the size of the clog does nothing to clear out a pipe....

Critics hailing from such diverse corners as the Heritage Foundation and the American Constitution Society have called for wide-ranging reform of the pardon process.  This might be the time to implement significant changes, such as removing many levels of review and giving the person or committee charged with making recommendations on clemency much more frequent and direct access to the president.

Even if systemic reform of the process isn’t undertaken or doesn’t take immediate effect, a shorter-term solution is available.  Obama could empanel a presidential clemency board for a period of 12 to 18 months to consider the mass of petitions that may be generated through the process Cole described.

This pop-up agency would push through the egg in the snake, make its recommendations, and disband.  Their efforts would be revenue-positive (because of savings in incarceration costs), further an important policy goal that has been embraced by members of both parties and all three branches of government, and avoid the dangers presented when a new, permanent bureaucracy is established. What’s not to like about that?

Some recent and older posts concerning federal clemency practices:

February 4, 2014 at 09:17 AM | Permalink

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Comments

I don't think we've seen enough evidence yet that Obama actually intends to use the pardon power in a vigorous manner. Talking about it doesn't mean there is actually any such intention, and after five years of pardon paucity I think there needs to be something more than talk in order to indicate that there actually is such an intention. And even if there were such an intention I could easily see this administration changing its mind, either for politics sake or because it turns out there really aren't enough offenders who qualify under the eventual criteria to call it a vigorous use.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Feb 4, 2014 10:42:41 AM

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