Wednesday, December 17, 2014

President Obama (aka clemency grinch) grants a few holiday pardons and commutations

GrinchFollowing the holiday script he first wrote with a few clemency grants last year the week before Christmas (as reported in this prior post), President Obama this afternoon granted 20 clemencies in the form of 8 commutations and 12 pardons.  This AP story provides the basics and some background:

President Barack Obama on Wednesday cut short prison time for eight drug convicts as part of his new initiative to reduce harsh sentences under outdated guidelines, a step that could lead to a vast expansion of presidential clemency in his final two years in office.

The president also is pardoning 12 convicts for a variety of offenses.  But the commutations are particularly significant because they are the first issued under new guidelines announced earlier this year designed to cut costs by reducing the nation's bulging prison population and grant leniency to nonviolent drug offenders sentenced to double-digit terms....

The White House said the eight new commutations Obama granted were for prisoners who likely would receive a substantially lower sentence today and would have already served their time.  For example, they include Barbara Scrivner, who was sentenced to 30 years in 1995 when she was 27 years old for a minor role in her husband's meth ring. Obama ordered her sentence to expire June 12, while others will expire April 15.

Administration officials say they expect Obama to grant more clemency petitions in his final two years in office under the changed policy he ordered from the Justice Department. The White House said 6,561 people already have applied in the past year, compared to 2,370 the year before. "I think there is an awareness out there that this president is interested in granting clemency on these kinds of matters," White House counsel Neil Eggleston said in an interview.

The clemency policy changes aren't limited to drug offenders, who comprise about half of the roughly 216,000 federal prisoners, but the criteria makes it clear they are the main target. To be eligible, inmates must have already been behind bars for at least 10 years, have a nonviolent history, have no major criminal convictions, have a good behavior record in prison, and be serving a sentence that, if imposed today, would be substantially shorter than what they were given at the time....

In his first term, Obama commuted just one drug sentence and pardoned 39 people, causing prisoner advocates to accuse him of being too stingy with his power. Obama aides said it was because he wasn't receiving more positive recommendations from the Office of the Pardon Attorney so he directed the Justice Department to improve its clemency recommendation process and recruit more applications from convicts.

Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who in April announced the clemency policy changes, said the sentence commutations reflect a "commitment to bring fairness to our criminal justice system."

"While all eight were properly held accountable for their criminal actions, their punishments did not fit their crimes, and sentencing laws and policies have since been updated to ensure more fairness for low-level offenders," he said in a statement....

The White House noted Obama now has commuted 18 sentences, compared to 11 under President George W. Bush and three in the first six years of the Clinton presidency. Clinton eventually commuted 61, most in a controversial action on his last day in office.

The full list of the lucky receipients of this act of presidential grace can be found here via the White House.  And this link provide the full text of Deputy AG Cole's statement about these clemency grants.  I expect the folks who follow the ins-and-outs of clemency even more closely than I do will have a lot to say in the days ahead about what might be special about the folks on this clemency list.

Though I do not want to criticize the President too much on a day in which he finally saw fit to make some minor use of his constitutional clemency authority, I will still think of him as a clemency grinch until he begins more regularly granting commutations to a whole lot more offenders still stuck serving severe (and now repealed) crack sentences.  There are, I believe, thousands of federal prisoners still serving time for crack offenses based on the old 100-1 crack/powder ratio, and there are surely many thousands more low-level drug offenders arguably just as deserving of clemency consideration.  President Obama would have to grant eight commutations every single day over the two years remaining in his presidency to even start to make a serious dent in federal prison population.

December 17, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, December 01, 2014

Making the case (again) for fixing the federal clemency process

Over the holiday weekend, Professors Rachel Barkow and Mark Osler renewed their call for reform of the federal clemency process through this Washington Post opinion piece.  Here are excerpts from the start and end of the piece:

In the run-up to Thanksgiving, it was a sure thing that a turkey would get an efficient reprieve from President Obama. But that’s only because the turkey did not have to go through the normal pardon process. If it had, it would likely have waited more than four years and have had several layers of government bureaucrats nit-picking its case. The federal clemency process — for humans, at least — is broken, and Obama should act now to fix it for the benefit of his and future administrations.

Since the 1980s, presidents have utterly failed to use their constitutional pardon power as a systemic check on federal laws and prosecutors that go too far. As a series of ProPublica reports published in The Post revealed in 2011, recent presidents grant pardons and commutations rarely and arbitrarily, largely giving relief only when it is requested by members of Congress or other influential people. Obama has been among the worst of the lot....

What is broken is no mystery. The key gatekeepers for this process are in the Justice Department — the same agency that prosecutes federal crimes. Unsurprisingly, the department has been reluctant to second-guess its own decisions and rarely recommends that the White House approve a clemency petition. Moreover, each petition must pass through as many as seven levels of review prior to approval, and many of those doing the reviewing (such as the deputy attorney general and the White House counsel) have plates already full with other duties....

It’s easy to envision a better method. As in countless other areas of law, from communications and securities regulation to establishing sentencing guidelines, a dedicated agency comprising experts could address the problem efficiently and effectively. The president should appoint a bipartisan commission of Democrats and Republicans with expertise in criminal law to consider all applications and track data on recidivism and other outcomes. The agency can work with the president’s reentry council to coordinate prisoners’ transitions back to civil society. And because the commission would be politically balanced, the president would not need to worry about being exposed to Willie Horton-style attacks, should a convict commit some new crime after being freed; these will be cases that people of all political stripes agreed deserved relief. President Gerald Ford used this device in 1974 when he created a temporary board to quickly process about 21,000 Vietnam-era draft evasion and deserter cases. One reason we know the Ford plan was a political success is because so few people remember it.

With a small but dedicated staff, such an agency would shrink the relevant levels of review to just three. There is a simple reason that states almost uniformly use such boards rather than the federal approach of sending the review through layers of prosecutors: It works.

Such a common-sense reform would provide the president with a lasting legacy that his successors would surely appreciate: a pardon process that works not just for turkeys on Thanksgiving but for everyone, all year long.

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

December 1, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Nearly a year into clemency initiative, turkeys remain more likely to get Prez Obama pardon than people

MaccheeseAs detailed in this AP story, headlined "Obama Defends Legal Authority — to Pardon Turkeys," there was much jocularity at the White House today as President Obama continued the White House tradition of giving executive grace to a couple of feathered friends:

President Barack Obama has issued an executive action that some of his Republican opponents may be hard-pressed to disagree with — sparing Thanksgiving turkeys from the dinner table.

In the spirit of the holiday, Obama on Wednesday took "action fully within my legal authority, the same kind of action taken by Democrats and Republican presidents before me," to pardon the National Thanksgiving Turkey, a 49-pound bird named Cheese. He also spared an alternate turkey, a 47-pounder named Mac. Both came from Cooper Farms in Oakwood, Ohio.

"If you're a turkey, and you're named after a side dish, your chances of escaping Thanksgiving dinner are pretty low," Obama said at the annual event, which drew international media coverage. He was accompanied by his daughters, Malia and Sasha, who declined his invitation to pet the birds. "No," Malia said....

"So these guys are well ahead of the curve. They really beat the odds," he said of Mac and Cheese. Obama last week announced a series of highly anticipated executive actions immigration that have left Republicans crying "fowl."

Joking about his poultry action, Obama said: "I know some will call this amnesty. But don't worry. There's plenty of turkey to go around." Later Wednesday, Obama took his family to a neighborhood food pantry to donate a pair of turkeys "that didn't make the cut."...

At the pardoning ceremony, Obama referenced news reports that questioned the wisdom of the turkey pardon tradition and said "it is a little puzzling that I do this every year." But Obama said he enjoys the tradition because "with all the tough stuff that swirls around in this office, it's nice once in a while just to say 'Happy Thanksgiving,' and this is a great excuse to do it."

Presidents as far back as Abraham Lincoln spared turkeys, according to the White House. President George H.W. Bush granted the first turkey pardon in November 1989.

At the risk of being a holiday party pooper, I cannot help but note that it has now been a full 10 months since the Obama Administration publicly announced (as detailed here) that it was eager to identify low-level, nonviolent drug offenders for possible clemency relief. Since that time, however, the President has granted clemency to a grand total of one prisoner and now to two turkeys.  Thus, as I have said often in the past and will continue to say unless things change dramatically, President Obama's clemency record to date to be not merely disappointing, but truly disgraceful.  

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

November 26, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Can and should out-going Maryland Gov commute death sentences to ensure LWOP after state's capital repeal?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Baltimore Sun article discussing the interesting procedural and practical issues now surrounding the fate of Maryland's death row prisoners and the decisions facing the out-going Maryland Governor who signed the law repealing the state's death penalty.  Here are excerpts from the article:

A western Maryland woman whose parents were killed by a man on death row urged Gov. Martin O'Malley in a phone conversation Monday not to commute the man's sentence. The conversation came days after The Baltimore Sun reported that O'Malley had reached out to two relatives of people killed by men on death row — moves that fueled speculation that, with two months left in office, the governor may be poised to take action on the death penalty cases.

"I said, 'Don't touch this [case], let it go back to court, let the judges decide,'" said Mary Francis Moore, 71, whose father and his wife were killed in 1995 by Heath William Burch. Moore said that in their roughly 15-minute phone conversation, O'Malley did not say what his plans were. But they discussed what might happen to Burch in light of another inmate's appeal. Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler has joined the appeal, arguing that the state no longer has the authority to execute anyone.

O'Malley "talked about the possibility that if it did go back to court, that these guys would get out, that they would only get life," not life without possibility of parole, Moore said. Moore said she concluded the conversation by asking O'Malley "to pray about it." The governor told her, she said, "I hope we meet some day."...

O'Malley has largely refused to discuss the fate of the men who were already sentenced to death when he and the General Assembly repealed the death penalty last year. The repeal did not apply to them.

Maryland's governor has broad power to pardon or reduce an inmate's sentence, but the authors of the death penalty repeal law included language spelling out that he could change a death sentence to life without parole — even if that sentence did not exist when the inmate committed his crime. Two men on death row commited their crimes before 1987, when Maryland lawmakers established the sentence of life without parole.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a proponent of repeal and the attorney general-elect, said Monday that a court would not be able to resentence an inmate to a penalty that did not exist at the time he was convicted, but the governor can.

Advocates on both sides of the issue have been watching to see whether O'Malley might commute the sentences of the four men remaining on death row....

Moore said she "begged" O'Malley not to grant Burch clemency, though he never clearly said he was considering that. She thinks Burch should be put to death. "I asked him, 'What are you going to do, governor?' I asked him two or three times, 'What are your plans?'"...

"The last thing I said to him was, 'I want you to really think about this, and I want you to pray about it, because I want you to do the right thing,'" she said. "The right thing to me is leave it alone."

Even before the death penalty repeal, the status of Maryland's death row inmates had been up in the air since 2006 when the state's regulations for executions were thrown out by a court. They were never replaced. Lawyers from the attorney general's office are scheduled to argue Dec. 8 before a state appellate court that Maryland can't issue new regulations now that capital punishment has been abolished.

An appeal by another death row inmate, Jody Lee Miles, faces an uncertain outcome in the courts. But Gansler has noted O'Malley's authority to commute death sentences to life without parole. Governors in Illinois and New Jersey commuted the existing death sentences in their states after the repeal of capital punishment....

Dorothy Atkinson, whose son was killed by Miles in 1997, said she, too, was contacted by the governor's office about a meeting.... Though Atkinson believes Miles deserves to be executed, she submitted a letter to O'Malley two weeks ago, asking him to commute Miles' sentence to spare her family from the ordeal of further legal wrangling.

I believe that, at least in some jurisdictions, convicted defendants are able to formally refuse to except a grant of clemency. Consequently, I am not entirely sure Gov O'Malley can ensure through a commutation decision that some of the death row prisoners get an LWOP sentence nor that a commutation decision will ensure there is no further legal wrangling over these cases. That said, the procedural and practical issues arising in this setting perhaps provide a strong reason for the out-going Gov to do exactly what the victims' families now request in each case whether that involves a request for commutation or a request to leave this matter to the state courts.

November 25, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, November 06, 2014

How might election results (and subsequent sparring) impact Prez Obama's clemency plans?

In this prior post, I wondered aloud "How might election results impact replacing Eric Holder as Attorney General?."  Since then, I have turned to thinking about, as the title of this post highlights, whether and how the Republican electorial success this election cycle might impact the President's thinking and plans about finally making some real use of his clemency powers.

As regular readers know, I consider President Obama's clemency record to date to be not merely disappointing, but truly disgraceful.  That said, earlier this year, Deputy AG Cole and others talked up a new DOJ effort to identify worthy clemency candidates so that the President might start to do better.  From the get-go, I have been concerned that all the talk of new clemency developments might prove to be just another example of the Obama Administration being real good at "talking the talk" and not nearly so good at really "walking the walk."  Indeed, until President Obama starts seriously and consistently using his clemency power, I remain deeply fearful that the so-called Clemency Project 2014 could prove to be much ado about nothing (or about very little relief for very few).

With these realities as backdrop, I have no sense at all whether the consequential political developments of the last few days will have little, some or much impact on whatever Prez Obama had in mind with respect to clemency.  Does anyone else have any insights or even wild speculations on this front?

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

November 6, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Friday, October 17, 2014

ProPublica urges next AG to "Fix Presidential Pardons"

The title of this post is drawn from the headline of this strong new piece from the Editor-in-Chief of ProPublica. The full headline and subheadline provides the basics: "For the Next Attorney General, a Modest Suggestion: Fix Presidential Pardons; More than two years ago, a ProPublica series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged." And here are a few excerpts from a piece that is styled as an open letter to the next Attorney General:

Dear Possible Attorney General Nominees (You Know Who You Are),...

More than two years ago, ProPublica reporters Dafna Linzer and Jennifer LaFleur revealed that white applicants were nearly four times as likely to receive a presidential pardon as were comparable African Americans. The story appeared on the front page of The Washington Post, our publishing partner. I know, I know, this seems improbable but LaFleur spent many months doing a statistical analysis that eliminated every other factor we could imagine that might explain this disparity. We sent our findings and methodology to several leading experts in the field. All agreed that race was the only factor driving the vast difference. We published our methodology and you can read it here. Linzer's reporting on the pardons process suggested that it was far more subjective than you might have thought. We wrote about how race creeps into decision-making even when no one is overtly biased. It's worth a look.

Given the starkness of these findings, we at ProPublica thought, naively, that your predecessor and his boss would move immediately to address this problem. As I'm sure you're aware, a president's authority to grant pardons is one of the only unchecked powers in our constitutional system of checks and balances. When it comes to pardons, President Obama can do whatever he wants.

We were told by several political insiders that the pardon stories did not prompt reform because of their timing. They appeared in late 2011, just as the president was gearing up for what was expected to be a bruising campaign for a second term. It was not considered the politically ideal moment for the nation's first African-American president to make the justice system fairer for people of color. And so the government did what it so often does in such circumstances: It commissioned a study to see if our findings were correct....

If history is any guide, you'll be getting a tsunami of pardon requests in the last months of the administration. It might be nice to have come up with some serious reforms by then to fix a process that is so demonstrably flawed. There are lots of ideas about what could done, from setting up an independent pardons commission to taking the pardons office out of the Justice Department.

Good luck with the confirmation hearings. And remember, two years can fly by a lot quicker than you'd ever imagine....

Best Regards,

Stephen Engelberg/Editor in Chief, ProPublica

October 17, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Could capital reprieve cost Colorado Gov his office?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy Denver Post article, headlined "Colorado's pro-death penalty voters could make Hickenlooper pay." Here are excerpts:

The cold-blooded murders of three teenagers and a manager late one night in a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in Aurora two decades ago has taken center stage in the political theater of this year's race for governor. Gov. John Hickenlooper has weathered political blows from the right since May 2013,when he granted the killer, Nathan Dunlap, a reprieve on his death sentence.

Hickenlooper's actions then reignited the hot topic over the weekend after Todd Shepherd of The Complete Colorado presented audio of Hickenlooper suggesting to a CNN film crew, in an interview for a segment of a documentary series set to air the evening of Sept. 7, that he could grant Dunlap clemency if he were to lose his re-election bid in November.

Besides reintroducing a wedge issue — capital punishment — that has a perception of marshaling Republican voters, the incumbent Democrat gave fresh life to Republicans' campaign narrative that Hickenloooper doesn't make forceful decisions. Republican nominee Bob Beauprez has repeatedly vowed on the campaign trail to execute Dunlap — an applause line for GOP voters....

Polling last April indicated Colorado voters support the death penalty 2-to-1. "This is a big issue," Owen Loftus, spokesman for the Colorado Republican Committee, said of the death penalty. "He's making it a bigger issue. The question of whether Gov. Hickenlooper is going to enforce justice or not — that gives people pause."...

When he ran for governor four years ago, Hickenlooper was vocal about being pro-capital punishment. His decision-making around the issue in 2013 has left some in his own party, and nearly everyone who opposes him, questioning his rationale.

The governor explained in his Dunlap decision that he believed Colorado's capital punishment system was "imperfect and inherently inequitable." The arguments began anew last weekend when news surfaced that Hickenlooper raised the possibility of clemency — which no Colorado governor has ever granted in a death penalty case. The governor reiterated his evolution on the issue this month when he told a television news reporter he opposes the death penalty....

Paul Teske, dean of the school of public affairs at the University of Colorado Denver, questioned whether Hickenlooper would lose any voters he might have had otherwise. "It could have a small influence, but the voters who are likely to be motivated by this issue probably weren't going to vote for Hickenlooper anyway," he said. But it could fit into a larger narrative. "I think Republicans will pair this with the gun issue to say that Hickenlooper is soft on public safety."

Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli said Hickenlooper can only blame himself for repeatedly reviving an issue that repeatedly hurts him. The issue was part of Hickenlooper's tipping point in 2013, Ciruli said, when he granted Dunlap the reprieve, helping drive down his approval ratings from results above and just below 60 percent to the low 40s.

"It was the first issue that clearly put him on the wrong side of the public," Ciruli said. "He had been a pretty popular governor up to that point in his first term, and it handed a very good issue to the Republicans to hammer him with. But it had kind of gone away. But now (since the CNN interview) he's reopened it."

By saying he might grant clemency if he loses, Hickenlooper didn't portray himself as a thoughtful leader, the pollster said. "Speaking in a hypothetical about what if he loses, what he might do, that comes across as politically manipulative," Ciruli said.

A Quinnipiac University poll in February indicated Coloradans by a 36 percent to 28 percent margin disapproved of Hickenlooper's handling of the Dunlap case. Meanwhile, 63 percent favored keeping the death penalty while 28 percent supported abolishing it. "There has been strong, unwavering support for the death penalty and a sense that the governor's 'not on my watch' position on the issue could hurt him on Election Day," said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac's polling operation.

Colorado has three [defendants on death row]. Colorado has executed only one person in the last 47 years, kidnapper, rapist and murderer Gary Lee Davis, who was put to death in 1997.

August 30, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, August 24, 2014

"Clemency and the Unitary Executive"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Rachel Barkow now available on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

President Obama’s use of enforcement discretion to achieve important domestic policy initiatives — including in the field of criminal law — have sparked a vigorous debate about where the President’s duty under the Take Care Clause ends and legitimate enforcement discretion begins.  But even with broad power to set enforcement charging policies, the President controls only the discretion of his or her agents at the front-end to achieve policy goals.  What about enforcement decisions already made, either by his or her own agents or actors in previous administrations, with which the President disagrees?  The Framers anticipated this issue in the context of criminal law and vested the President with broad and explicit back-end control through the constitutional pardon power.  But while centralized authority over enforcement discretion at the front-end has grown, the clemency power finds itself falling into desuetude.

This Article explores the fall of the clemency power and argues for its resurrection as a critical mechanism for the President to assert control over the executive branch in criminal cases.  While clemency has typically been referred to as an exercise of mercy and even analogized to religious forgiveness, it also serves a more structurally important role in the American constitutional order that has been all but overlooked.  It is a critical mechanism for the President to control the executive department.  Those in favor of a unitary executive should encourage its more robust employment.  But even critics of unitary executive theory should embrace clemency as a mechanism of control because, whatever the merits of other unitary executive claims involving military power or oversight over administrative agencies, clemency stands on different footing.  It is explicitly and unambiguously grounded in the Constitution’s text, and it comes with an established historical pedigree.  It is also a crucial checking mechanism given the landscape of criminal justice today.  The current environment of overbroad federal criminal laws and excessive charging by federal prosecutors has produced a criminal justice system of unprecedented size and scope with overcrowded and expensive federal prisons and hundreds of thousands of individuals hindered from reentering society because of a federal record.  Clemency is a key tool for addressing poor enforcement decisions and injustices in this system, as well as checking disparities in how different United States Attorneys enforce the law.

August 24, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Friday, August 22, 2014

"It’s Time to Overhaul Clemency"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent New York Times editorial.  Though I wish the headline was something more like "Prez Obama sucks for failing to overhaul clemency during his six years on the job," I am glad to see the Grey Lady again spotlighting the Obama Administration's conspicuous failings to date in this arena.  Here are excerpts: 

On Jan. 20, 2009, in his last moments as president, George W. Bush gave Barack Obama a hard-earned bit of wisdom: whatever you do, he said, pick a pardon policy and stick with it.

It was sage advice, yet, more than five years later, President Obama has not heeded it. As a result, as one former pardon attorney has said, the clemency power is “the least respected and most misunderstood” power a president has. Yet it is granted explicitly by the Constitution as a crucial backstop to undo an unjust conviction or to temper unreasonably harsh punishments approved by lawmakers. It also can restore basic rights, like the right to vote, that many people lose upon being convicted.

In the past, presidents made good use of it, but as tough-on-crime policies became more popular, the number of grants fell dramatically. Judging by the numbers, Mr. Obama, who has, so far, granted just 62 clemency petitions, is the least merciful president in modern history.

The Obama administration took a stab at remedying the situation in April when it replaced its feckless pardon attorney and announced that it would consider granting clemency to thousands of low-level drug offenders serving what Mr. Obama called “unjust” sentences. The effort, dubbed Clemency Project 2014, was a promising start, but it has already run into significant hurdles, most recently a ruling barring hundreds of federal public defenders from assisting inmates in filing their petitions.

Even if the project succeeds, it is a one-time fix that fails to address the core reasons behind the decades-long abandonment of the presidential power of mercy. A better solution would be a complete overhaul of the clemency process. First and foremost, this means taking it out of the hands of the Justice Department, where federal prosecutors with an inevitable conflict of interest recommend the denial of virtually all applications. Instead, give it to an independent commission that makes informed recommendations directly to the president.

That proposal, which has been made before, gets new attention in an upcoming article in the University of Chicago Law Review by two law professors, Rachel Barkow and Mark Osler. Such a commission’s membership, the authors write, must be politically balanced and have a wide range of perspectives, including those of prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges, inmates, academics, officials from corrections and law enforcement, and victims’ rights advocates....

In several states that already have such commissions — such as Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Alabama — clemency decisions are more transparent, more predictable, and much more frequent than in the federal system.

Mr. Obama’s failure to wield the pardon power more forcefully is all the more frustrating when considered against the backdrop of endless accusations that he is exercising too much executive authority, sometimes — his critics say — arbitrarily if not illegally. In this case, he should take advantage of a crucial power that the Constitution unreservedly grants him.

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

August 22, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, August 15, 2014

"Restructuring Clemency: The Cost of Ignoring Clemency and a Plan for Renewal"

The title of this post is the title of this notable and timely new article by Rachel Barkow and Mark Osler.  Because I admire and respect the work of both these folks so much, I am going to make sure I read this joint-effort even on a sunny summer Friday afternoon.  Here is the abstract:

Over the past three decades, the pardon power has too often been ignored or used to create calamities rather than cure them.  Our most recent Presidents seem to realize the system is not working only at the end of their time in office, when they feel safe in giving grants but become aware of the fact that the system does not produce many recommendations for doing so even when asked.  As a key constitutional power, clemency deserves to be more than an afterthought to a presidential term.

The use of the pardon power is a necessary element in a fully-functioning system of criminal law.  Recent presidents, however, have largely ignored this powerful tool, even as some have sought to expand the power of the office in other ways.  This essay seeks both to describe the costs of this trend and to propose important structural reforms to reverse it.  Specifically, we advocate for the creation of an independent commission with a standing, diverse membership.  While this commission should have representation from the Department of Justice and take the views of prosecutors seriously, the commission itself should exist outside the Department and its recommendations should go directly to the White House.  This new model of clemency should also pay attention to data both to create uniform standards and to focus the use of the pardon power on policy as a management tool.  An emphasis on data will also help the new pardon commission make evidence-based decisions about risk and reentry.  It is time to view clemency reform as a priority for the office of the presidency no matter who holds the position.  This is the time to create a better machine of mercy.

August 15, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Defender hiccup or major headache for Clemency Project 2014?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new article from Al Jazeera America headlined "Federal defenders potentially excluded from historic clemency drive." Here are excerpts:

Six months after the Justice Department called on defense lawyers to help it identify and vet candidates for its clemency drive, there is concern that the federal defenders — whom the DOJ invited in as key partners — might never have been authorized to participate in the first place. This could leave the initiative without the manpower it needs.

A high portion of the potential pool of inmates is represented by the federal defenders, and they have been critical in the formation and operation of Clemency Project 2014, a coalition of defense lawyers and advocates created in the wake of the DOJ’s call. (The vast majority of those prosecuted in federal courts receive court-appointed lawyers; in districts where there is a federal defenders’ office, they generally handle 60 percent of those cases.)

"Federal defenders include some of the best courtroom and appellate advocates in the United States. Having them work with the Clemency Project 2014 has been important to the work we are doing,” said Mark Osler, director of the Federal Commutations Clinic at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, who has been training lawyers for the Clemency Project. “Losing them as a part of the coalition would be a significant challenge.”

The courts appoint federal defenders — under the Criminal Justice Act — to represent indigent defendants in federal judicial proceedings, a service paid for by the public. Now the courts’ highest authority is considering whether those appointments can extend to representing clients in their petitions to the president for mercy, a process conducted wholly in the executive branch....

In February, the Justice Department invited representatives from a select group of its traditional rivals — the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the American Civil Liberties Union, Families Against Mandatory Minimums and the federal defenders — to a series of meetings to discuss how the process might be structured. (A conservative organization, Judicial Watch, is currently suing the Justice Department to make those discussions public.)

The criteria that eventually emerged called for inmates who were nonviolent, low-level drug offenders without significant ties to large-scale criminal organizations. They would also have to have served at least 10 years of their prison sentences, not have a significant history of crime or violence and have demonstrated good conduct in prison.

While the Justice Department will ultimately decide which inmates to recommend to the president for clemency, it is the defense bar that has been tasked by the government with most of the upfront work, including identifying worthy candidates, recruiting and training the vast numbers of pro bono attorneys needed to assist the effort, preparing the petitions and vetting which petitions reach the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney....

Cynthia W. Roseberry, the newly appointed head of the Clemency Project 2014, a former federal defender herself, said that “we look forward to continuing our collaboration with the federal defenders,” and that she remained confident that the project has the resources to identify all prisoners who meet the criteria for clemency and to ensure they have access to counsel at no cost....

The federal defenders declined to comment on internal discussions relating to when, if ever, consideration was given to whether they were statutorily authorized to participate in such a broad clemency effort. Kathy Nester, the federal public defender for the district of Utah and the defenders’ representative on the Clemency Project 2014 steering committee, referred to standing orders by judges in six districts already appointing defenders, saying it was evidence that the work logically falls to them. (At the time of publication, the administrative office of the courts was only able to confirm that there were four such standing orders.)

“It was a federal public defender's office that submitted the successful clemency petition in the case of Ezell Gilbert late last year,” said Nester, referring to one of the eight inmates whose sentences President Barack Obama commuted in December 2013. “This was done at the urging of [the Justice Department] and federal judges who had reviewed the case. Defenders have approached the clemency project with a good faith belief that we are supposed to take positions that are in the best interest of our clients, and that this historical opportunity for relief from unreasonable sentences would certainly fall within that mission.”

Similarly, in June, a federal defender motion in Cleveland asked for a court appointment to do clemency petitions, noting that it was the deputy attorney general, not the inmates themselves, who had requested that the defense bar seek clemency for qualified inmates. In response, the DOJ asked the court to defer appointing the defenders until the administrative office of the U.S. courts makes its decision as to whether the defenders are authorized to do such work. Neither the department nor the U.S. Attorney’s office in Cleveland would say whether this was now a department-wide position....

The more than 20,000 federal inmates who have taken up the DOJ on its invitation and asked Clemency Project 2014 to review their cases now await those who set these wheels in motion to sort it all out.

I sincerely hope there does not end up being major difficulties with federal defenders working on clemency petitions for federal inmates. And however these administrative issues get worked out, it will remain the case that there are just far too many federal prisoners who could benefit from experienced defense lawyers and far too few lawyers able to provide all the legal help needed.

July 27, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles grants execution eve clemency to witness killer

As reported in this Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, "hours before he was to be executed for a murder 23 years ago, Tommy Lee Waldrip was granted clemency." Here are the details:

The state Board of Pardons and Paroles made the rare decision to commute a condemned man’s sentence to life without parole Wednesday even as state and federal courts had turned down his appeals. Waldrip’s execution was set for 7 p.m. Thursday for the murder of Keith Evans, a college student who was about to testify against Waldrip’s son in a re-trial of an armed robbery case.

The board’s decision came several hours after members heard pleas for mercy from relatives, friends and Waldrip’s lawyers, and then from prosecutors and members of the Evans family who wanted the execution carried out.

The board does not give a reason for its decision. Members vote individually and only the chairman, who collects the ballots, knows how each one decided. The decision required a simple majority, three out of five members.

But one issue raised before the board was that the sentences for Waldrip, his son and Waldrip’s brother, all convicted of murdering Evans on April 13,1991, were not proportional. Prosecutors did not seek the death penalty against Howard Livingston, Waldrip’s brother, but they did in the cases against Tommy Lee Waldrip and his son John Mark Waldrip. The three men were tried separately. Only Tommy Lee Waldrip was sentenced to die. John Mark Waldrip and Livingston are serving life sentences....

This was the fifth time since 2002 that the board has commuted the sentence of a death row inmate. The most recent one was on April 12, 2012, when the board commuted the death sentence of Daniel Greene.

Notably, one of the recent cases in which the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles refused to grant clemency was the high-profile Troy Davis case. Notably, for those focused on racial dynamics in this context, it is perhaps notable that Tommy Lee Waldrip is white and that Daniel Greene is black. Ergo, since Troy Davis was denied clemency, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles has granted clemency to one black and one white convicted murderer.

July 10, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Michigan Supreme Court holds that Gov cannot revoke a valid sentence commutation

Today in Makowski v Governor, No. 146867 (Mich. June 3, 2014) (available here), the Michigan Supreme Court declared unanimously that "the Michigan Constitution does not grant the Governor the power to revoke a valid commutation."  Here is an excerpt from the start of the syllabus to the decision which provides context for and summarizes the context of the ruling:

Matthew Makowski filed an action in the Court of Claims against the Governor and the Secretary of State, seeking a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief to reverse then Governor Jennifer Granholm’s decision to revoke her commutation of plaintiff’s nonparolable life sentence that had been imposed for his first-degree murder and armed robbery convictions.  The Governor had signed the commutation on December 22, 2010, after which it was signed by the Secretary of State and affixed with the Great Seal; however, four days later, the Governor decided to revoke the commutation order, and all copies of the commutation certificate were destroyed.  Plaintiff alleged that the commutation was final when it was signed, sealed, and delivered to the Department of Corrections, and argued that the Governor lacked the authority to revoke a completed commutation.  The court, Richard D. Ball, J., granted defendants’ motion for summary disposition, concluding that it lacked jurisdiction to review the governor’s exercise of discretion over commutation decisions.  Plaintiff appealed.  The Court of Appeals, O’CONNELL, P.J., and CAVANAGH and DONOFRIO, JJ., affirmed, holding that the Governor’s exercise of the commutation power presented a nonjusticiable political question.  299 Mich App 166 (2012).  The Supreme Court granted plaintiff’s application for leave to appeal. 494 Mich 876 (2013).

In an opinion by Justice CAVANAGH, joined by Chief Justice YOUNG and Justices MARKMAN, KELLY, AND VIVIANO, the Supreme Court held:

The interpretation and exercise of the Governor’s powers under Const 1963, art 5, § 14 were justiciable questions properly before this Court.  The Constitution did not give the Governor the power to revoke a validly granted commutation.  A commutation is complete when it is signed by the Governor and the Secretary of State and affixed with the Great Seal. Because the Governor signed plaintiff’s commutation and delivered it to the Secretary of State, where it was signed and affixed with the Great Seal, plaintiff was granted an irrevocable commutation of his sentence.

June 3, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Empirical explorations of modern capital clemency

Michael Heise has recently posted on SSRN two intriguing pieces concerning the modern patterns of capital clemency. Here are links and abstracts:

The Death of Death Row Clemency and the Evolving Politics of Unequal Grace

While America’s appetite for capital punishment continues to wane over time, clemency for death row inmates is all but extinct.  Moreover, what little clemency activity that persists continues to distribute unevenly across gender, racial and ethnic groups, geography, governors’ political affiliation, and over time. Insofar as courts appear extremely reluctant to review — let alone interfere with — clemency activity, little, if any, formal legal recourse exists.  Results from this study of clemency activity on state death rows (1973-2010) suggest that potential problems arise, however, to the extent that our criminal justice system relies on clemency to function as coherent extrajudicial check.

The Geography of Mercy: An Empirical Analysis of Clemency for Death Row Inmates

Conventional wisdom notes persistent regional differences in the application of the death penalty, with southern states’ appetite for capital punishment exceeding that of non-southern states.  Scholars analyzing the distributions of death sentences and state executions find a geographic influence.  Less explored, however, is a possible regional difference in the distribution of executive clemency even though clemency is an integral component of a criminal justice system that includes capital punishment.  If geography influences the distribution of the death penalty, geography should also influence the distribution of clemency.  Data, however, reveal some surprises.  Using a recently-released data set of all state death row inmates from 1973 to 2010, this paper considers whether clemency is exercised in southern and non-southern states in systematically different ways.  No statistically significant differences exist between southern and non-southern states when it came to clemency, even though southern states were more prone to execute and less prone to disturb death sentences through reversal on appeal than northern states.  When it comes to the influence of geography in the death penalty context, the findings provide mixed support and convey a complicated picture.

June 3, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, June 02, 2014

House votes to preclude funding for clemency efforts as well as for pot prosecutions

I was amazed and pleased upon learning that a majority of members of the US House of Representative voted for an appropriations measure that would preclude the Justice Department from using funds to prevent states from implementing their medical marijuana laws (basics here and here).  But I was also amazed and peturbed upon learning that a majority of members of the US House of Representative also voted for an appropriations measure that would preclude the Justice Department from using funds to have more DOJ attorneys screen clemency petitions in conjunction with efforts to bring old excessive sentences in line with current laws and norms. This MSNBC article, headlined "House Republicans vote to block Obama’s new pardon attorneys," explains:

The U.S. House voted Thursday to block the Obama administration’s plan to add staff to the Pardon Attorney’s office, a potential barrier to the Justice Department’s efforts to scale back some lengthy prison sentences handed down in the war on drugs. The measure, sponsored by Republican North Carolina Rep. George Holding, bans any funding for staff who would conduct the administration’s planned review of applications from inmates seeking early release.

The measure is attached to a new Justice Department funding bill that passed on a party-line vote of 219-189. A Justice Department official told msnbc that Attorney General Eric Holder considers the new funding restriction “absurd.”

The department in April launched a new effort to review more clemency applications and expand the criteria for releasing inmates, particularly those still imprisoned under harsh sentencing laws that have since been reformed. Holding said he pushed the funding ban because he believes Obama is intent on using his presidential pardon power “solely on behalf of drug offenders.”

Speaking on the House floor, Holding also accused the administration of bulking up the Pardon Attorney’s office as a “political ploy” in order to “bypass Congress” and drug laws that are still on the books.

House Democrats objected, saying the funding ban would hamper the research and expertise of the Pardon Office. “If there were a resignation in the office and if you needed to have a temporary detailee, it would be prohibited from this amendment,” Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Chakah Fattah said. “The last thing we would want is the President using such extraordinary power without the benefit of proper staff and due diligence,” he added.

Virginia Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, said that while “no one denies the constitutional power of the president to grant clemency,” the Justice Department’s encouragement of “thousands” of clemency appeals is an improper use of the clemency power.  “Congress should not fund that office for that purpose,” Goodlatte said.

To date, President Obama has granted ten clemency petitions out of 11,218 clemency petitions received.

I am inclined to use the word asinine rather than absurd to describe this funding restriction and vote. Congress ought to pass a resolution if it is eager to provide advice or express concerns about how Prez Obama (or any other president for that matter) may be planning to use the constitutional clemency authority. But to prevent DOJ from having adequate resources to better screen the huge number of petitions coming from a huge number of federal prisoners serving now reformed sentences seems more likely to encourage misuse rather than better use of the clemency power.  Sigh.

June 2, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, May 16, 2014

New commentary highlights why DOJ's new clemency initiative is not enough of a good thing

Megan Quattlebaum has this notable new commentary up at Huffington Post under the headline "2,785 Petitioners for Clemency Need All of the Mercy Obama Can Give."  It highlights one of many cases not formally covered by the new DOJ clemency guidelines but still subject to what seems like an unfair federal drug sentencing system. Here are excerpts:

Shortly after high school, Michael Keating fell in with a bad crowd in his rural hometown in Missouri, and began experimenting with meth. By the age of 20, he was hooked and using the drug on a daily basis.  He met a man who said that if Michael allowed him to use the woods behind his house to produce drugs, he would give the young addict some of what he made.

Soon thereafter, police officers received information that meth was being made at Michael's home. They searched his property and found a bucket of waste water in the backyard. Although the waste water contained less than a gram of methamphetamine, pursuant to the Eastern District of Missouri's practice (which has been rejected by the majority of federal circuit courts and the U.S. Sentencing Commission) Michael, the sole defendant in the case, was charged as though the entire weight of the water in the bucket -- more than 2,700 grams -- was a marketable drug. He was sentenced to serve more than 11 years in federal prison.

Late last month, the Department of Justice announced a laudable initiative to seek out nonviolent drug offenders with long prison sentences whom it will consider for clemency. The initiative is open to federal prisoners who meet six criteria, including that they have served at least ten years of their sentence and likely would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense today. The goal, according to President Obama, is to help "restor[e] fundamental ideals of justice and fairness" to our penal system by releasing those who "would have already served their time and paid their debt to society" had they been sentenced under current law.

This is a tremendous step forward, but it won't help Michael Keating. He has only served seven and a half years in prison, not ten, as the initiative requires. And the law under which he was sentenced hasn't changed -- in Missouri, possession of the un-ingestible by-product of drug production is still punished just as harshly as possession of the same amount of marketable drugs. Michael's case is emblematic of our need to go even further to right the wrongs of failed sentencing policies.

Still, some who have commented on the initiative seem to view it as too much justice. One group of critics fears the "early" release of convicted felons into our communities. But, as Michael's story demonstrates, we need to take a hard look at individual cases before we assume that those with past convictions pose a present danger....

[W]hile President Obama is right to search out new candidates for sentence mitigation, he shouldn't neglect those meritorious individuals whose cases are already before him. Michael Keating's application has been pending for over two years; it is one of the 2,785 sentence commutation petitions on which the Pardon Attorney has not yet acted. In addition to seeking out new submissions, the President should take a close look at those he has in hand. On the path to saner sentencing policy, we will need all of the mercy that he can give.

May 16, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Judge Paul Friedman identifies drug defendant who should benefit from Clemency Project 2014

I am intrigued and pleased to have learned that this afternoon District Court Judge Paul Friedman issued an opinion in US v. McDade, No. 13-1066 (D.D.C. Apr. 29, 2014) (available for download below), which in part responds to the Justice Department's recent announcements about its new clemency initiative.  I urge all those wondering about the types of defendants and cases that the new clemency initiative might help to read Judge Friedman's new McDade opinion in full; here is a snippet that provides a sense for why:

On February 25, 2002, after a ten-day trial, a jury found defendant Byron Lamont McDade guilty of conspiracy to distribute and possess with the intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine. Most of the witnesses at trial were his former co-defendants or others involved in the conspiracy who had negotiated pleas with the government involving cooperation and testimony. In fact, McDade was the only one of those charged in this multi-defendant case to have proceeded to trial.  Regrettably, pursuant to the then-mandatory pre-Booker sentencing guidelines, the Court was required to sentence McDade to 324 months in prison, a sentence which the Court described at the time as “much more than sufficiently punitive.”...

At the time the Court sentenced Mr. McDade nearly twelve years ago, on May 31, 2002, he was a 34-year old married man with two young children, one of whom is disabled.  He was a high school graduate who had been employed more or less steadily as a loader for United Parcel Service, as an apprentice for a plumbing company, as a self-employed operator of a company that provided transportation to the handicapped, and as a sanitation truck driver.  He was described by his wife, a hair stylist who suffers from a heart murmur, as a good father to their children and to her son by a prior relationship.   Before his current conviction, Mr. McDade had one prior misdemeanor conviction for which he was ordered to pay a ten-dollar fine. Id. at 10-11. For the instant offense, he faced a ten-year mandatory minimum sentence and, at Offense Level 41, Criminal History Category I, a pre-Booker guideline sentence of 324 months to life.....

In denying Mr. McDade’s first motion to vacate, set aside or correct his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255, the Court [noted that] ... had Mr. McDade not exercised his constitutional right to a jury trial and instead pled guilty, the likely sentence under even a mandatory Guideline regime would have been approximately 168 months, approximately half the sentence the Court was required to impose after Mr. McDade was found guilty at trial.  [This Court also then noted that] had the Sentencing Guidelines been advisory in 2002, or if Booker were retroactive now, the Court would vary substantially from the Guideline sentence of 324 months....

Earlier this year, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole previewed a new effort on the part of the Department of Justice to identify individuals who are potential candidates for executive clemency and sentence commutations and whom he hoped, with the help of volunteer lawyers and bar associations, would be encouraged to prepare clemency petitions to the Department of Justice.  He said at the time: “For our criminal justice system to be effective, it needs to not only be fair; but it also must be perceived as being fair. These older, stringent punishments, that are out of line with sentences imposed under today’s laws, erode people’s confidence in our criminal justice system.”  Then, just last week, Deputy Attorney General Cole formally announced a new initiative to encourage qualified federal inmates to petition to have their sentences commuted or reduced by the President, an initiative that will have the assistance of numerous volunteer attorneys and groups under the umbrella Clemency Project 2014.  He noted that the initiative is not limited to crack offenders, but to “worthy candidates” who meet six specific criteria.  He stated that this clemency initiative “will go far to promote the most fundamental of American ideals – equal justice under law.” 

The Court continues to believe that Byron McDade is a prime candidate for executive clemency.  The sentence this Court was required to impose on Mr. McDade was unjust at the time and is “out of line” with and disproportionate to those that would be imposed under similar facts today.  While the Court is powerless to reduce the sentence it was required by then-existing law to impose, the President is not.  The Court urges Mr. McDade’s appointed counsel to pursue executive clemency on Mr. McDade’s behalf so that justice may be done in this case.

Download McDade opinion

April 29, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, 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 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Saturday, April 26, 2014

"Not just clemency, but smarter sentencing: Congress must act to make criminal justice more just"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent Washington Times op-ed authored by Craig DeRoche who is president of Justice Fellowship. Here are excerpts:

President Obama’s decision to grant clemency to a large number of nonviolent offenders in federal prison has ignited a much-needed national discussion on criminal justice reform, but voices on both sides are missing some key underlining problems.

Over the past several decades, Congress has passed disproportionate mandatory-minimum sentences for nonviolent offenses that infringe upon the moral and constitutional duties of judges to ensure fair and equitable justice.  As the head of a faith-based organization guided by the Christian values of redemption and transformation, I am called to advocate for a system that values compassion and mercy as necessary policy counterweights to justice.

Justice is giving someone what they deserve, based on the harm they have caused, whereas mercy is extending leniency that is undeserved.  Clemency was designed to be an instrument of mercy, while lawmaking is an exercise of justice.

If the aim of Mr. Obama’s clemency initiative is to correct unjust policy rather than extend mercy in specific cases, then it does nothing to address systematic problem plaguing America’s burgeoning criminal justice system; namely, the disproportionate and ineffective sentencing laws for nonviolent crimes that have led to a federal prison system at 38 percent above capacity.

This unacceptably high level of overcrowding is dangerous for both prison guards and prisoners.  It also diminishes the capacity for faith-based nonprofits such as ours to provide effective programming that helps transform prisoners into law-abiding citizens when they return to our communities.  Not to mention that paying for the skyrocketing federal prison population is essentially accomplished by theft from budgets that formerly went toward victims’ services, prosecutors, investigations and crime-prevention tools.

Some on the political right, in particular members of Congress, object to what Mr. Obama is proposing on the grounds that this is yet another executive action by an imperial president who they think is interfering with the constitutional prerogatives of lawmakers to make policy.

While there is no doubt that both the current and previous occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue have governed — sometimes questionably — through executive action, the Constitution clearly assigns the power of both clemency and pardons to the chief executive.  This is, in fact, a presidential prerogative inherited by way of ancient English constitutional law, which has always held the head of state to be the lead in executing prosecution, punishment and mercy.

The issue is not whether the president has the power to grant clemency, but rather whether Mr. Obama will overreach with that power in a way that undermines the long-term policy changes that can only be established through Congress’ lawmaking power.  Instead of using clemency as a blunt instrument to fix the broken policies and laws governing the criminal justice system, all three branches of government must work together to rebalance the scales of justice and restore a system that is no longer working for anyone....

Congress and the president have the opportunity to fulfill their constitutional obligations with two pieces of pending legislation that have attracted strong bipartisan support and affirm the growing consensus in support of reforming the criminal justice system.

One of the bills is the Smarter Sentencing Act, which has attracted the co-sponsorship of two polar opposites in the Senate: Mike Lee, a Tea Party Republican from Utah, and Richard J. Durbin, a liberal Illinois Democrat. The other is the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act, co-sponsored by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, an unabashed liberal Democrat from Rhode Island, and John Cornyn, a Texas Republican conservative, which passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 15-2 vote.

This rare consensus should not be taken for granted. Discussions and hearings alone are lip service. If Congress wants to avoid an executive-dominated approach to the challenges facing our criminal justice system, it must take the lead in not only proposing, but passing, long-term solutions. All three branches of government working as our Founding Fathers envisioned will not only show the American public that our democracy still works, but that our society has become a more just one.

April 26, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, April 24, 2014

How many of current federal prisoners satisfy all six of the new DOJ clemency guidelines?

As reported here, yesterday the US Department of Justice announced more formally its plans and criteria for its Clemency Initiative, and this memo by Deputy AG Cole there set forth "six criteria the department will consider when reviewing and expediting clemency applications from federal inmates":

Under the new initiative, the department will prioritize clemency applications from inmates who meet all of the following factors [numbering added]:

  • [1] They are currently serving a federal sentence in prison and, by operation of law, likely would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense(s) today;
  • [2] They are non-violent, low-level offenders without significant ties to large scale criminal organizations, gangs or cartels;
  • [3] They have served at least 10 years of their prison sentence;
  • [4] They do not have a significant criminal history;
  • [5] They have demonstrated good conduct in prison; and
  • [6] They have no history of violence prior to or during their current term of imprisonment.

This BOP page indicates that, as of April 24, 2014, there are 216,614 total federal prisoners, and this BOP accounting of sentences imposed indicates that the majority of federal prisoners are serving sentences of less than 10 years. Moreover, I suspect that less than half of the roughly 45,000 federal inmates current serving prison terms of 15 years or more have already served at least 10 years of their prison sentence. In other words, clemency criteria #3 above alone probably cuts the number of possible "priority clemency applicants" down to around 20,000.

In a sound and cautious sentencing system (and likely in most state sentencing systems), there would be relatively few among the group of inmates serving over 10 years in prison who were "non-violent, low-level offenders" who lacked a "significant criminal history" and also have "no history of violence prior to or during their current term of imprisonment."  Nevertheless I fear that in the federal sentencing system under old-mandatory guidelines, there may be thousands of crack offenders and many other drug offenders (and perhaps even some white-collar offenders?), who have been imprisoned for a decade for non-violent, low-level offenses.  

Thanks to the Fair Sentencing Act, many of the crack offenders should be able to state that "by operation of law, [they] likely would have received a substantially lower sentence."  But can any lower-level non-violent drug offender also reasonably make this claim if she was sentenced before Booker? Could these drug defendants point to the now pending drug guideline amendments (as well as Booker) to claim they meet clemency criteria #1?

Long story short, I suspect there may well be perhaps 5000 or more federal prisoner who can make a plausible claim that they meet all six of clemency criteria.

April 24, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (22) | TrackBack