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September 10, 2018

Another effective examination of ups and down of federal clemency (and the persistence of hope) in modern times

Against the backdrop of almost complete disuse of the federal clemency power (especially the power to commute prison sentences) which had become a modern norm, the clemency activity over the last few years of the Obama Administration and at the start of the Trump Administration have been encouraging.  But this effective extended review of recent developments, with a focus on the case of "Life for Pot" defendant John Knock, highlights that for many downs rather than ups define the reality of all the buzz around clemency.  The article's full headline highlights its themes: "The Prisoners Left Behind: How Barack Obama’s clemency operation failed thousands of drug offenders, some serving long sentences for cannabis crimes, and left them at the mercy of Donald Trump’s whims."  Here is an excerpt:

Knock is one of more than 1,500 drug offenders set to die in federal prison under 1980s-era drug sentencing laws, despite a critical shift in drug punishments since then. Dozens of those lifers are marijuana offenders like him. With no other recourse, Knock had turned to clemency as his best chance at freedom.  Obama’s program was well intentioned but hobbled by poor planning.  Trump has commuted the sentence of just one drug offender so far, but that’s enough to give some inmates a shred of hope.

But those hopes were misplaced. Although President Obama’s program did grant more than 1,700 commutations — more than any other president — clemency experts say bureaucracy and poor planning stifled the program’s ability to free many more. Out of the 13,000 people denied between 2014 and 2017, thousands appeared to be worthy candidates—at least on paper, according to a 2017 analysis by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.... 

But in fact, the commission found that only 3 percent of drug offenders who appeared to meet all of the DOJ’s criteria actually received clemency. Conversely, only 5 percent of the people who did receive clemency appeared to meet all of the criteria. Without much transparency in the review process, several critics now compare it to a “lottery system.” 

“It felt like a lottery, in the sense that if you say you need six criteria to be considered, people are going to take you at your face value,” said Courtney Oliva, executive director of NYU’s Center on the Administration of Criminal Law.  Thousands of other petitions got no response at all. On Obama’s final day in office, 11,000 pending petitions rolled over into President Donald Trump’s administration, leaving thousands of cases still languishing in limbo as inmates looked to another president for mercy....

[I]n early June the president did commute the life sentence of Alice Johnson, who had served twenty years in prison for her role in a large cocaine distribution ring. Before Trump, President Obama had denied Johnson’s requests for clemency three times. 

Trump’s move came at the request of a celebrity, Kim Kardashian West, who visited the White House again this week to discuss criminal justice reform.  Kardashian also said this week she has a second candidate for clemency in mind, a man named Chris Young who is serving a life sentence for cannabis and cocaine convictions.  He was thirty years old when he was sent to prison almost a decade ago. Two days after granting Johnson’s clemency, Trump said he was considering other pardons from a list of 3,000 names. But despite his decision for Alice Johnson, some still doubt the possibility of a wholesale initiative like Obama’s. 

“I think there’s a lot of uncertainty as to what it means because I don’t trust this administration,” said Courtney Oliva. “Assuming we have a normal president again someday, you’re going to want a system that’s not path-dependent on Kim Kardashian.”  But to John Knock and his family, the latest clemency approval has ushered in a surge of optimism.  “How do I feel? Hopeful,” Knock wrote in a letter, days after Johnson’s release. “Obama had seven layers of bureaucracy one had to pass through.  Trump has one.” 

“It’s disruptive to the way the system has always worked,” Knock’s sister Beth Curtis said. “If it is done directly through the White House, and the White House considers petitions that had been carefully vetted by people in the criminal justice community, that’s a very positive thing.”... 

“I still have hope,” Knock said.  Knock’s name is among the several that have been sent directly to senior advisor Jared Kushner, according to Curtis, and Knock’s was sent by “a man who knew John in high school who is a friend of Mike Pence.”

September 10, 2018 at 10:16 AM | Permalink

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