« Curious SCOTUS cert calls in criminal cases continuing, though overcriminalization now on docket | Main | New study concludes "conservative estimate" of erroneous US capital convictions has been over 4% »

April 28, 2014

Is change at top of The Office of the Pardon Attorney the biggest part of DOJ's new clemency initiative?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by the subheadline of this effective article by Abby Rapoport at The American Prospect. The piece carries the main headline "Pardon Me, Mr. President?", and its subheadline makes this astute observation: "By appointing an advocate for defendants' rights as the new pardon attorney, the Obama administration has signaled it is serious about commuting drug offenses." Here is a snippet from the piece (with a few links preserved, which merits a full read:

The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced the start of a new initiative on clemency, encouraging thousands of inmates — particularly those convicted during the Drug War crackdown of the 1990s — to send in petitions to have their sentences commuted.  The new initiative offers six new criteria by which petitioners will be judged, including the following: prisoners must have served 10 years of their sentence, must not have lengthy criminal records or gang convictions, and show that they would have gotten off with a lighter sentence had they been tried today. In his more than five years in office, Obama has been the stingiest president in history when it comes to granting pardons; the new program could make him one of the most generous.

But the biggest news for criminal-justice reformers has been the administration’s appointment of a new pardon attorney to oversee the program: Deborah Leff, who spent her years at DOJ working on the Access to Justice Initiative, an agency meant to help low-income defendants get a fair hearing in court.  “Poor people often do not have access to counsel, and when they do get an attorney, that lawyer is often overworked, undertrained, undercompensated, and placed in a system that encourages a quick plea bargain and discourages carefully listening to the needs of clients,”  she wrote in an article with Melanca Clark for the American Bar Association. Those who come from the prosecutorial side of things — which is most everyone at the Department of Justice — tend to be more skeptical of the idea that convicted criminals can be reformed. But Leff's background makes her more likely to be sympathetic to requests for clemency.

“One thing about law and particularly this kind of law is that almost always people are more important than rules,” says Mark Osler, a law professor at St. Thomas University and founder of the nation’s first federal clemency clinic (I recently profiled his story in our most recent print issue). “Leff’s work within the DOJ has largely been about making sure that people who have a petition or grievance have a way to have it heard fairly.” For those hoping to see a robust clemency push, her background bodes well. The administration’s clemency criteria have plenty of wiggle room, which makes the selection of a new pardon attorney all the more significant.  The department wants petitions from applicants who are “non-violent, low-level offenders without significant ties to large scale criminal organizations, gangs or cartels.”  Depending on how the U.S. pardon attorney exercises her discretion, an offender who grew up with gangs and was loosely affiliated with them could either be an ideal candidate for clemency or excluded altogether. Similarly, petitioners must have “demonstrated good conduct in prison”—a criterion that could include or exclude prisoners with one or two black marks on their records depending on the pardon attorney’s views....

Ron Rodgers, the U.S. pardon attorney until this week, was known for his opposition to clemency requests. Rodgers and David Margolis, the Department of Justice assistant deputy attorney general, both got blasted in a 2012 report for the dramatic mishandling of one particular petition during the Bush regime: Clarence Aaron, who received a triple life sentence for his role a drug conspiracy.

Leff’s appointment helps send a clear signal that this new initiative isn’t just lip service to the reform community, which until now hasn’t seen much action from the Obama administration.  Despite rhetoric in the 2008 election about the casualties of America’s War on Drugs, in his tenure the president had done little to help those still serving decades-long sentences.

A few of many recent and older posts concerning federal clemency practices:

April 28, 2014 at 12:08 PM | Permalink

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d83451574769e201a511ab24a5970c

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Is change at top of The Office of the Pardon Attorney the biggest part of DOJ's new clemency initiative?:

Comments

Excuse my mouth, but the current atty needs to be shit stomped.

Enough said on that one.

Posted by: MidWestGuy | Apr 28, 2014 9:15:27 PM

I feel too encouraged to even be able to comment on the changes going on in the Pardon Attorney's office.

I did want to thank you however for linking the profile of Mark Osler. His quaker like, yet mainline protestantism is vividly familiar, admirable and comfortable. It was a pleasure to read -

Posted by: beth | Apr 28, 2014 10:08:03 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB