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January 20, 2016

Disconcerting backstory apparently explains quick departure of DOJ's Pardon Attorney

I had seen news late last week that the Justice Department’s relatively new pardon attorney had announced she was resigning her post, and this new Washington Post article about the departure provides some of the backstory. The piece is headlined "Attorney overseeing clemency initiative leaving in frustration," and here are excerpts:

The Justice Department’s pardon attorney — charged with overseeing the review of clemency petitions from federal inmates — is stepping down at the end of January because she is frustrated by a lack of resources for one of the president’s centerpiece criminal-justice initiatives, according to people close to her.

The departure of Deborah Leff, who has been in her role since 2014, comes as the Obama administration struggles to process a backlog of more than 9,000 pending clemency petitions. As the president approaches the end of his second term, time is running out for his high-profile effort to offer clemency to certain nonviolent federal drug offenders harshly sentenced in the nation’s war on drugs.  

The Justice Department said it is confident that Leff’s departure will not delay the administration’s clemency initiative, and it hopes to find a replacement quickly.  Justice spokeswoman Emily Pierce also said the department is asking Congress to more than double the number of lawyers assigned to the pardon office, from 22 to 46.

Leff could not be reached for comment but released a statement saying that she has known President Obama for more than 20 years and that she thinks “his commitment to reinvigorating the clemency process — and the promise that holds for justice — can change the lives of a great many deserving people.” But Leff added: “It is essential that this groundbreaking effort move ahead expeditiously and expand.”

A former trial lawyer, senior television producer and president of the Public Welfare Foundation, Leff was highly respected by sentencing reform advocates. “She never got the staffing she needed,” said one friend. “She was very frustrated.” Other people close to Leff said that she was passionate about making the clemency initiative work but had been unhappy for quite some time about not having enough resources.

Obama has commuted the sentences of 184 federal inmates. White House Counsel Neil Eg­gleston said in December that Obama has commuted the sentences of more individuals than the past five presidents combined and that the president will grant more commutations and pardons this year. But advocates of sentencing reform are disappointed that the clemency process has not moved more quickly and that more of the thousands who have submitted clemency petitions have not had their sentences commuted....

A senior Justice Department official said that the clemency initiative is of the highest priority for the department and that those involved have been working tirelessly to move petitions along as quickly as they can with a limited budget and legal restrictions....

“To lose the head of the office that’s running the clemency initiative is concerning,” said Kevin Ring, vice president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “We hope she is replaced by someone who is as dedicated, smart, passionate and committed as she was to getting these petitions through.”

Pierce said the department has been constrained by law in terms of how many resources and how much of its budget it can devote to the clemency initiative. Pierce said the department has “provided additional funds to the pardon office within the confines of our budget and has detailed dozens of additional full- and part-time attorneys over the course of the clemency initiative.” Despite the constraints, a Justice official said that lawyers are reading each of the thousands of clemency petitions that have been submitted and have prioritized the ones that best meet the new criteria set out by the administration....

Justice officials said that they expect to name a replacement before Leff leaves Jan. 31. “A new pardon attorney will be named in the near future and we expect the work of the pardon attorney’s office to continue apace as we identify and vet potential candidates for the president’s clemency priorities,” Pierce said. “The Justice Department is dedicated to the goals of the clemency initiative and is steadfastly committed to doing all it can to ensure fairness in the criminal-justice system.”

I find this story disconcerting because it seems to me just another manifestation of the problems Prez Obama has himself created by having ignored his clemency powers during his first six years in office and then deciding he should try to make up for lost time on his way out of the Oval Office.  I had (foolishly?) hoped Prez Obama would have been a lot smarter in this important space in the wake of the ugly last-day clemency doings of Prez Clinton back in 2001 and especially with out-going Prez Bush telling in-coming Prez Obama on Inauguration Day 2009 that clemency matters should garner his attention.  But here we are seeing, yet again, that by ignoring these matters until essentially the last minute, Prez Obama's record in this space will be marked by various missteps and frustrations (although I remain hopeful that even his "last-minute" efforts will still result in a notable improvement on the work of many of his recent predecessors in the clemency arena).

January 20, 2016 at 05:53 PM | Permalink

Comments

We get it. You hate Obama.

Posted by: Don't Ask | Jan 21, 2016 11:15:35 AM

Based on this comment, Don't Ask, I do not think you "get it" at all. Just sayin'

Posted by: Doug B. | Jan 21, 2016 2:40:14 PM

Don't Ask is the name of a hooker at a cathouse in Amsterdam. Her partner who pays, is named Don't Tell.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Jan 23, 2016 10:48:21 AM

Gotta work hard to read this and conclude that Berman doesn't "like Obama." It's a very well written piece about the woes that have plagued OPA for decades and how we are seeing, sadly, a repeat of the same missteps even from a president who apparently wants to change the status quo. It is frustrating, for anyone invested in justice through clemency, to watch this play out in as it is...we hope for the best but it's not exactly feeding us optimism.

Posted by: Amy | Jan 31, 2016 12:07:10 AM

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