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September 16, 2016

Detailing interesting sentencing dynamics in the latest batches of "term" commutations by Prez Obama

091416-Obama-commutations-online_1USA Today has this great new article highlighting an especially interesting aspect of the most recent clemency work by President Obama.  The piece is headlined "For Obama, a shift in clemency strategy," and here are excerpts:

For 126 federal inmates who received presidential clemency last month, the good news might have come with a dose of disappointment. President Obama had granted their requests for commutations, using his constitutional pardon power to shorten their sentences for drug offenses. But instead of releasing them, he left them with years — and in some cases, more than a decade — left to serve on their sentences.

As Obama has begun to grant commutations to inmates convicted of more serious crimes, Obama has increasingly commuted their sentences without immediately releasing them. These are what are known as "term" commutations, as opposed to the more common "time served" commutations, and they represent a remarkable departure from recent past practice. Unlike a full pardon, commutations shorten sentences but leave other consequences of the conviction in place.

A USA TODAY analysis of Obama's 673 commutations shows a marked change in strategy on his clemency initiative, one of the key criminal justice reform efforts of his presidency. Before last month, almost all of the inmates whose sentences were commuted were released within four months, just long enough for the Bureau of Prisons to arrange for court-supervised monitoring and other re-entry programs. But in the last two rounds of presidential clemency in August, 39% of commutations come with a long string attached: a year or more left to serve on the sentence.

The strategy has also allowed Obama to commute the sentences of even more serious offenders. Before last month, 13% of inmates receiving clemency had used a firearm in the offense. For those granted presidential mercy last month, it was 22%. Through lawyers in the Justice Department and the White House Counsel's Office, the president is effectively recalculating the sentences using the federal guidelines in effect today — as opposed to the harsher penalties mandated by Congress in the 1980s and '90s.

While previous presidents have granted term commutations on a case-by-case basis — President Bill Clinton required a Puerto Rican nationalist convicted of seditious conspiracy to serve five more years, and President Richard Nixon made a Washington, D.C. murderer serve another decade — Obama appears to be the first to employ them as a matter of policy. "There are a number of cases where it’s a genuine re-sentencing. It’s unprecedented,” said former pardon attorney Margaret Love, who served under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Clinton. “That signals to me that the power is being used in a way it’s never been used before.”

There may also be a political calculation to the new clemency strategy, reflecting a general understanding that there's no guarantee that a President Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump would continue Obama's signature clemency initiative. While it's not entirely settled, most scholars believe a commutation warrant cannot be revoked by a future president once it's granted, delivered and accepted.

Explaining his philosophy on commutation power at a press conference last month — the day after he set a single-day clemency record by granting 214 commutations — Obama gave the example of an inmate who has already served a 25-year sentence but would have only served 20 if sentenced under today's laws. "What we try to do is to screen through and find those individuals who have paid their debt to society, that have behaved themselves and tried to reform themselves while incarcerated, and we think have a good chance of being able to use that second chance well," he said.

But increasingly, recipients of Obama's mercy are years away from paying their debt to society.

White House Counsel Neil Eggleston, who's the last stop for a clemency application before it goes to the president, acknowledged the change in strategy on Aug. 3, the day Obama issued 214 commutations. "While some commutation recipients will begin to process out of federal custody immediately, others will serve more time," he wrote in a blog post. "While these term reductions will require applicants to serve additional time, it will also allow applicants to continue their rehabilitation by completing educational and self-improvement programming and to participate in drug or other counseling services."

Critics say Obama is no longer reserving his clemency power for extraordinary circumstances, but instead substituting his own judgment for that of Congress and the courts. "To impose these things, and to have the commutation take effect after he leaves office — and even after the presidency of someone who succeeds him — seems inappropriate to me," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

But Goodlatte also acknowledged that the power to "grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States" is one of the Constitution's most ironclad powers, and amending the Constitution would be difficult....

"He has effectively set himself up as a judge, reviewing thousands of cases where they’ve been prosecuted, convicted, sentenced and appealed beyond the district court level. And he's undercut all that work by commuting their sentences," Goodlatte said. "I think the president is taking a misguided approach to this issue when he tries to set himself up as a super-judge who would oversee the actions of a separate branch of government."

Mary Price, who has represented drug offenders seeking presidential clemency, said the president is the only person who can act under present law. "In our system, there's a heavy emphasis on finality of judgment," said Price, chief counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which advocates for changes in drug laws. "The court has no jurisdiction to go back and change that sentence." For inmates with one or two years left on their Obama-shortened sentence, the president's clemency could motivating them to prepare for reentry into society, Price said. One drug treatment program gives inmates an additional year off their sentence if they complete it.

While Obama's re-sentencing strategy is a departure from recent practice, experts note that presidents have granted term commutations before. For example, any commutation of the death penalty to life imprisonment would fit the definition of that the Justice Department calls a "term commutation," as opposed to the more typical "time served" commutation.

And if recent presidents haven't done it that way, it's more because they've granted so few commutations to begin with. As the White House is quick to note, Obama has now commuted the sentences of more prisoners than the previous 10 presidents — that's Dwight Eisenhower through George W. Bush — combined. "Is Obama doing it at some unprecedented level? I don't know. Maybe," said P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political scientist who has analyzed data on presidential clemency back to George Washington. "But I am not so sure what to make of that either," he said. "That's what checks and balances are all about."

September 16, 2016 at 09:08 AM | Permalink

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