Thursday, November 26, 2015

So thankful for the renewed focus on federal clemency... but...

I am still annoyed and troubled that it still seems Prez Obama is more committed to making headlines with the silly annual tradition of pardoning turkeys than with clemency grants to federal defendants seeking commutations while serving excessively long sentences or those seeking relief from the collateral consequences of long-ago federal convictions.  This article, headlined "Obama pardons TOTUS — the Turkey of the United States," discusses the latest clemency work of Prez Obama in this arena:   

President Obama seemed to be trying out a Thanksgiving-themed comedy club act Wednesday as he engaged in the traditional White House turkey pardoning. "Feel free to keep on gobbling," Obama told the Rose Garden crowd as he announced that, also per tradition, two turkeys would be spared this Thanksgiving Eve.

"I can announce that the American people have spoken, and we have two winners," he said. "Their names are Honest and Abe — I confess that Honest looks like good eating, but this is a democracy." With daughters Malia and Sasha at his side, Obama declared that "Abe is now a free bird" and will now be designated "TOTUS — the Turkey of the United States."...

During the Rose Garden ceremony, Obama thanked his daughters "for once again standing here with me during the turkey pardoning ... They do this solely because it makes me feel good — not because they actually think that this is something I should be doing."...

The president weighed in on one of the Thanksgiving football games, sticking up for his hometown Chicago Bears. "I'm grateful for the fact the Bears are going to beat the Packers this weekend," Obama said (though it must be said that the Pack is a big favorite, and the game is in Green Bay).

He also took an obligatory poke at the news media: "I've got to listen to my critics say I'm often too soft on turkeys, and I'm sure the press is digging into whether or not the turkeys I've pardoned have really rededicated their lives to being good turkey citizens."

Obama pointed out that this was his seventh turkey pardoning as president. "Time flies," he said. "Even though turkeys don't."  As the crowd chuckled. Obama said: "I thought it was good. You think it's funny too, don't you?" Also: "I know some folks think this tradition is a little silly. I do not disagree."

November 26, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Outgoing Kentucky Gov restores voting rights to many thousands of nonviolent felons

As reported in this AP article, the "outgoing Democratic governor of Kentucky signed an executive order Tuesday to restore the right to vote and hold public office to thousands of non-violent felons who've served out their sentences."  Here is more:

The order from Gov. Steve Beshear — who leaves office next month — does not include those convicted of violent crimes, sex offenses, bribery or treason. Kentucky already restores voting rights to some nonviolent convicted felons, but the felon must apply to the governor's office, which approves them on a case by case basis. This new order automatically restores voting rights to convicted felons who meet certain criteria upon their release. Those who have already been released can fill out a form on the state Department of Corrections' website.

"All of our society will be better off if we actively work to help rehabilitate those who have made a mistake," Beshear said. "And the more we do that, the more the entire society will benefit."

Kentucky was one of four states that did not automatically restore voting rights to felons once they completed all the terms of their sentences. About 180,000 in Kentucky have served their sentences yet remain banned from casting ballots. The Kentucky legislature has tried and failed numerous times to pass a bill to restore voting rights to felons. The Republican-controlled Senate would agree only if there was a five-year waiting period, which Democrats refused....

Democrats control state government until next month, when Republican Gov.-elect Matt Bevin takes office. Bevin could repeal Beshear's order or allow it to stand. Bevin spokeswoman Jessica Ditto said Bevin supports restoring voting rights to nonviolent offenders, but added he was not notified of Beshear's order until a few minutes before he announced it. "The Executive Order will be evaluated during the transition period," she said.

Republican State Rep. Jeff Hoover, the minority floor leader of the state House of Representatives, said he supports restoring voting rights to convicted felons but opposes Beshear's method of doing it. "It should be the role of the legislature, not one person, which should address these issues through legislative debate," Hoover said in a news release. "This is a prime example of this Governor following in the footsteps of President Obama and putting his own agenda above the people of Kentucky and the elected legislators who serve them."

November 24, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Collateral consequences, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13)

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Ohio Gov Kasich extends de facto execution moratorium into 2017

Ohio-executionEarlier this year during SCOTUS oral argument in the Glossip lethal injection case, Justice Alito complained about what he saw as a "guerrilla war against the death penalty which consists of efforts to make it impossible for the states to obtain drugs that could be used to carry out capital punishment." For anyone inclined to accept that characterization, today brings news that the warriors have scored another significant victory.  This new AP piece, headlined "Ohio delays executions until 2017 over lack of lethal drugs," provides the basic details:

Ohio is putting off executions until at least 2017 as the state struggles to obtain supplies of lethal injection drugs, delaying capital punishment for a full two years, the prisons department announced Monday. Execution dates for 11 inmates scheduled to die next year and one scheduled for early 2017 were all pushed into ensuing years through warrants of reprieve issued by Gov. John Kasich.

The result is 25 inmates with execution dates beginning in January 2017 that are now scheduled through August 2019. Ohio last put someone to death in January 2014.

Ohio has run out of supplies of its previous drugs and has unsuccessfully sought new amounts, including so-far failed attempts to import chemicals from overseas. The new dates are needed to give the prisons agency extra time, the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction said in a statement.

The agency “continues to seek all legal means to obtain the drugs necessary to carry out court ordered executions, but over the past few years it has become exceedingly difficult to secure those drugs because of severe supply and distribution restrictions,” the statement said....

The next execution was scheduled for Jan. 21 when Ronald Phillips was to die for raping and killing his girlfriend’s 3-year-old daughter in Akron in 1993. Phillips’ execution was rescheduled for Jan. 12, 2017.

The handwriting has been on the wall for months that Ohio would have to make such a move, said Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien, expressing his frustration at a new set of delays. These delays come in cases where inmates have long exhausted their appeals and there’s no question of their guilt, he said. “It seems that in those states that authorize assisted suicide, there has been no impediment to securing drugs, and as time marches onward, victims wonder why they must continue to wait for justice,” O’Brien said in an email.

Ohio abandoned the two-drug method after McGuire’s execution and announced it would use either of two older drugs that it had previously obtained for capital punishment, but did not currently have supplies of. One of those drugs, sodium thiopental, is no longer manufactured by FDA-approved companies and the other, pentobarbital, has been put off limits for executions by drug makers.

Ohio obtained a federal import license to seek supplies overseas, but has been told by the FDA that such a move is illegal. Ohio raised the issue again with the FDA earlier this month, asserting the state believes it can obtain a lethal-injection drug from overseas without violating any laws. The FDA has yet to respond. 

A few prior related posts:

October 20, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Clemency and Pardons, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Prez Obama talking again about talking some more about criminal justice reform

As reported in this USA Today piece, headlined "Obama launches criminal justice tour: 'Something I’ll keep fighting for'," President Obama devoted his weekly radio address Saturday morning to talking about his plans to travel the nation and talk more about criminal justice reform. Here are the basics:

President Obama said Saturday that he'll launch a nationwide criminal justice tour next week, an effort that he says will "highlight some of the Americans who are doing their part to fix our criminal justice system."

"Much of our criminal justice system remains unfair," Obama said in his weekly radio address Saturday morning. "In recent years, more of our eyes have been opened to this truth. We can’t close them anymore. And good people, of all political persuasions, are eager to do something about it."

The first stop in the tour will be in Charleston, W.Va. next Wednesday, where he'll host a town-hall-style meeting on the prescription drug abuse and heroin epidemic.The White House says Obama will talk about local, state and federal efforts as well as private sector initiatives addressing the crisis. Obama said he'll also meet in coming weeks with police chiefs and former prisoners. Details on those tour stops are expected to be released next week.

In his radio address, Obama threw his support behind bipartisan proposals in Congress to shorten mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses and reward convicts who participate in prison programs with shorter sentences.

I am always pleased when the leader of our nation brings attention to the criminal justice reform issues that are the focus of my professional work. But I remain frustrated that Prez Obama seems to continue to be content to talk about the need for more action rather than actually take more action.

In addition to lots more clemency grants (especially because he remains way behind all modern presidents on pardons), Prez Obama could create more task forces to examine existing evidence on the most successful local and state-level reforms. In particular, with all the continuing local and state-level marijuana reform activity, I think it is long overdue for Prez Obama to show some leadership in this criminal justice reform space through some significant executive action.

October 18, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, October 05, 2015

Missouri Gov commutes death sentence at last minute because...............??

The quirky question in the title of this post is my reaction to this notable capital clemency news out of the Show Me state that leaves me wishing the chief executive of the state had showed all of us more about his reasons for communiting a death sentence only days before a scheduled execution.  Here are the (somewhat mysterious) details via this local article headlined "Nixon commutes death sentence for convicted murderer Kimber Edwards":

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon commuted on Friday the death sentence for Kimber Edwards, who was convicted in the 2000 murder-for-hire of his ex-wife, to a life sentence without parole. Edwards had been scheduled to be executed by injection at 6 p.m. Tuesday. His attorneys had recently asked the Missouri Supreme Court to throw out his conviction and death sentence because of doubts raised about his guilt.

Nixon did not explain his surprise decision, other than to say it came after a “thorough review of the facts” and was “not taken lightly.” He said the evidence supported the jury’s decision to convict Edwards of first-degree murder.

“After a thorough review of the facts surrounding the murder of Kimberly Cantrell, I am convinced the evidence supports the jury’s decision to convict Kimber Edwards of first-degree murder. At the same time, however, I am using my authority under the Missouri Constitution to commute Edwards’ sentence to life without the possibility of parole. This is a step not taken lightly, and only after significant consideration of the totality of the circumstances. With this decision, Kimber Edwards will remain in prison for the remainder of his life for this murder.”

Reached later Friday, a spokesman for Nixon said he would not elaborate.

Kimberly Cantrell, 35, was shot twice in the head in her apartment in the 1100 block of Midland Avenue in University City on Aug. 22, 2000. Authorities said Edwards had hired Orthell Wilson to kill Cantrell, Edwards’ ex-wife, to prevent her from testifying in a child-support hearing.

One of Cantrell’s siblings, Chuck Cantrell of San Jose, Calif., said that his family was informed of the decision less than five minutes before it was made public. Cantrell spoke to a legal adviser for the governor but wanted to speak to Nixon himself. “I would think that the governor would certainly understand that his action of this magnitude certainly has impact on the survivors of the victim,” he said. “I just can’t imagine that his office could be so callous. I would hate to think this would be some sort of political maneuver. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”

He said family members had had no plans to witness the execution, but that didn’t mean they didn’t care about the case. He said he and his family had no doubt about Edwards’ guilt and that they knew how Edwards could manipulate a situation to his advantage. Edwards’ attorneys had recently tried to cast doubt on his guilt. They focused on two statements that were central to his case. One was a statement by Wilson, who said Edwards had hired him to kill Cantrell in 2000. The other was a confession from Edwards.

Wilson, who is serving a life sentence without parole, has recanted his statement, telling a Post-Dispatch reporter in April that he had acted alone and had lied about being hired by Edwards. He then signed an affidavit saying so. Edwards claimed at his trial — and ever since — that he was innocent. In new appeals, his attorneys pointed to the possibility that police had coerced his confession. They claimed Edwards has a form of autism that could have made him vulnerable to aggressive interrogation techniques, leading him to make a false confession.

Edwards’ attorney, Kent Gipson of Kansas City, petitioned the state Supreme Court to throw out the conviction for murder and armed criminal action, and the death sentence, and appoint a special master to review Edwards’ innocence claim. The court denied in July a similar request to study Edwards’ claim of innocence. The court has not yet ruled on Gipson’s petition. But he said he made the same case to lawyers from Nixon’s office this week.

“We’re all very happy because (days leading up to an execution are) always a very stressful and difficult time for everyone, the clients, the lawyers and the family,” Gipson said. “It’s a load off everyone’s shoulders, particularly the client, because he’s going to live.”... Gipson said the commutation of the death sentence would give him and Edwards more time to potentially seek a new trial.

In recent days, Gipson had been pressing a claim with Nixon’s office that during the penalty phase after Edwards’ conviction, the prosecutor in the case had inquired whether Edwards would be willing to waive appeals in the case in exchange for life in prison. But his supervisors refused.

According to notes in the attorney’s file from 13 years ago, Judge Mark D. Seigel expressed in chambers that he was unhappy about the lack of a deal to spare Edwards. Reached Friday, Seigel said that he did not remember the conversation and that it “does not sound like something I would have said in chambers or anywhere else.”

I presume that lingering concerns about guilt prompted the Governor's actions here, but it would be helpful if the commutation statement spoke to that possibility or whatever else might have motivated the Governor to act in this way.   I think it is entirely appropriate and readily justifiable for a clemency board or a governor to commute a death sentence based on concerns about residual guilt.  But I do not consider it appropriate or justifiable for a decision made on this basis (or others) to be hidden behind the kind of cursory statement offered by Gov Nixon in this case.

October 5, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, October 01, 2015

"President Obama and the Power of Mercy"

The title of this post is the headline of this New York Times editorial. Here are excerpts:

The power to grant mercy to someone who is serving an unjustly long sentence is one of the most important constitutional powers a president has to counteract the frequent excesses of the federal criminal justice system.  Between 1885 and 1930, presidents issued more than 10,000 grants of clemency.  But in recent decades the practice has fallen into irrelevance.  Starting with President Ronald Reagan, pardons and sentence commutations have become little more than a lottery or a game of personal connections, often doled out in the waning days of an administration.

Until recently, President Obama was the least merciful president of modern times. In the past year, he has done more — his totals now stand at 89 sentence commutations and 64 pardons.  (A commutation shortens or ends a sentence being served, while a pardon erases the conviction and restores any rights lost as a result.)  This is a step in the right direction, but there are many thousands more in prison who are deserving of executive clemency....

The Office of the Pardon Attorney, a division in the Justice Department, has the job of sifting through tens of thousands of clemency petitions....  [But], the clemency process should be removed from the Justice Department entirely.

The idea has been proposed before, but it is gaining new and notable supporters, including Margaret Love, who served as pardon attorney under Presidents Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush, and who until recently defended the department’s role.  In a new law review article, however, she says the department is “determinedly and irreconcilably hostile” to clemency.

It should be no surprise that pardon lawyers working in the Justice Department are loath to second-­guess the convictions and sentences obtained by the department’s prosecutors.  The solution, as Ms. Love and others argue, is to move the clemency process into the White House itself, and to give it enough money to operate effectively.  As many states have already discovered, a clemency commission — ideally representing a wide range of perspectives from the justice system — can handle more petitions with greater transparency and predictability than a pardon attorney with a very small staff.

October 1, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Oklahoma Gov grants 37-day "stay" of Richard Glossip's scheduled execution

As detailed in this official press release, "Governor Mary Fallin has issued a 37 day stay of Richard Glossip’s execution to address legal questions raised today about Oklahoma’s execution protocols."  here is the rest of the text of the press release:

The stay will give the Department of Corrections and its attorneys the opportunity to determine whether potassium acetate is compliant with the state’s court-approved execution procedures. 

“Last minute questions were raised today about Oklahoma’s execution protocol and the chemicals used for lethal injection,” said Fallin.  “After consulting with the attorney general and the Department of Corrections, I have issued a 37 day stay of execution while the state addresses those questions and ensures it is complying fully with the protocols approved by federal courts.”
The new execution date will be Friday, November 6.
“My sincerest sympathies go out to the Van Treese family, who has waited so long to see justice done,” said Fallin. 

Amusingly, as noted here by Kent Scheidegger at Crime & Consequences, Gov Fallin technically granted Glossip a reprieve, not a stay, according to the terms of the Oklahoma Constitution. But I suppose we should not expect a Gov or her legal staff to be concerns about such semantics. Intriguingly, as reported here by Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog, this order came after the Supreme Court had formally rejected Glossip's various last-minute appeals and stay requests and only Justice Breyer dissented from that decision.

September 30, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Georgia finally completes execution of female murderer

As reported in this NBC News article, headlined "Georgia Woman Kelly Gissendaner Sings 'Amazing Grace' During Execution," a flurry of last-minute appeals did not prevent the Peach State from finally carrying out a high-profile execution. Here are the basics:

A Georgia woman who was executed despite a plea for mercy from Pope Francis sang "Amazing Grace" until she was given a lethal injection, witnesses said. Kelly Renee Gissendaner, who graduated from a theology program in prison, was put to death at 12:21 a.m. Wednesday after a flurry of last-minute appeals failed.

Gissendaner, who was sentenced to death for the 1997 stabbing murder of her husband at the hands of her lover, sobbed as she called the victim an "amazing man who died because of me." She was the first woman executed in Georgia in 70 years and one of a handful of death-row inmates who were executed even though they did not physically partake in a murder.

The mother of three was nearly executed in February, but the lethal injection was abruptly called off because the chemicals appeared cloudy. After a new execution date was set, Gissendaner, 47, convinced the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to reconsider her application for clemency.

In an extraordinary turn, Pope Francis — who called for a global ban on the death penalty during his U.S. visit last week — urged the board to spare her life. "While not wishing to minimize the gravity of the crime for which Ms. Gissendander has been convicted, and while sympathizing with the victims, I nonetheless implore you, in consideration of the reasons that have been expressed to your board, to commute the sentence to one that would better express both justice and mercy," Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano wrote on the pontiff's behalf.

Shortly thereafter, the board announced that it would not stop the execution.

The victim's family was split on whether Gissendaner should live or die: Her children appeared before the parole board to ask that their mom be spared the death chamber, but her husband's relatives said she did not deserve clemency. "Kelly planned and executed Doug's murder. She targeted him and his death was intentional," Douglas Gissendaner's loved ones said in a written statement.

"In the last 18 years, our mission has been to seek justice for Doug's murder and to keep his memory alive. We have faith in our legal system and do believe that Kelly has been afforded every right that our legal system affords. As the murderer, she's been given more rights and opportunity over the last 18 years than she ever afforded to Doug who, again, is the victim here. She had no mercy, gave him no rights, no choices, nor the opportunity to live his life. His life was not hers to take."

In the hours before her death, Gissendaner pressed a number of appeals, arguing that it was not fair she got death while the lover who killed her husband got a life sentence. She also said the execution drugs might be defective, and that she had turned her life around and found religion while in prison....

Jeff Hullinger, a journalist with NBC station WXIA who witnessed the execution, later told reporters that Gissendaner appeared "very, very emotional, I was struck by that." He added: "She was crying and then she was sobbing and then broke into song as well as into a number of apologies ... When she was not singing, she was praying."

September 30, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (9)

Monday, September 28, 2015

A busy (and diverse) week for execution plans and capital concerns

Over the next three days, three condemned murderers are scheduled to be executed in three different states, and in each case a different pitch is being made to try to halt the execution.  Here are the basics: 

Tuesday, September 29Georgia is scheduled to execute Kelly Gissendaner, who would be the first woman executed by the state in 70 years. She was convicted in February 1997 of conspiring with her lover to kill her husband. (The lover, who took a plea deal and testified against Gissendaner, is serving a life sentence and he will be eligible for parole in 2022.)  The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles announced today it would consider additional pleas for clemency at a hearing the morning of the scheduled executions.

Wednesday, September 30Oklahoma is scheduled to execute Richard Glossip, who was the lead litigant in the challenge to Oklahoma's execution protocol which a divided Supreme Court rejected in Glossip v. Gross.  He was convicted (again) a 2004 retrial of conspiring with a co-worker to kill their boss.  (The co-worker, who took a plea deal and testified against Glossip, is serving an LWOP sentence.)  The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, in a split vote today, declined to halt Glossip's execution after having delayed it earlier this month based principally on renewed claims of Glossip's innocence.

Thursday, Oct 1Virginia is scheduled to execution Alfredo Prieto, who is a foreign national and whose guilt in a number of killings seems to be uncontested. He was first sent to California's death row for the rape/murder of a teenage girl before being transferred and sentenced to death in Virginia five years ago for the 1988 killing of two college students. His lawyers assert he is intellectually disabled and apparently want him sent back to California to have his disability claim considered on the other coast.

For the sake of assessing my ability to prognosticate in the capital arena, I will on Monday predict that at least one, perhaps two, but not all three of these executions will be completed this week. Anyone else care to make predictions about any or all of these cases on the eve of what will surely be a mid-week full of capital conversations and litigation.

September 28, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (8)

Friday, September 18, 2015

"Cuba to release 3,522 prisoners on the eve of Pope Francis’ visit; why can’t Obama do the same?"

PopeFrancisIsis-v2The provocative question in the title of this post is the title of this notable San Francisco Bay View commentary. Here is how it starts:

Just prior to the visit of Pope Francis to Cuba on Sept. 19, the Cuban government has announced the release of 3,522 people being held in the country’s jails.  This humanitarian gesture will include prisoners who are over 60 years of age, younger than 20, those with chronic illnesses, women and those who are close to their release dates.

Why couldn’t Obama follow the Cuban example before Pope Francis continues on his tour to the U.S. on Sept. 22?  The United States, which has the dubious distinction of having the largest per capita prison population in the world, is overflowing with people who are primarily incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, on drug charges, or being mentally ill and poor.  Of the 2.5 million people in jails and prisons in this country, a vastly disproportionate number are people of color.

As the Obama presidency winds down, with nothing to lose, he could do the right thing by releasing an equal percentage of the prison population as the Cubans did.  Now that would be a humanitarian gesture that a war torn world could appreciate and a gesture of peace with justice to the visiting Pope.  It would amount to the freedom of tens of thousands of people.

Though I am suspect of any accounting of Cuba's incarceration levels (or its propaganda about recent releases), the latest estimate of its imprisoned population is around 57,500.  Consequently, its release of more than 3,500 prisoners amounts to freeing more than 6% of its incarcerated population.  A comparable effort by President Obama, if we focus on the entire local, state and federal incarcerated US population, would require the release of more than 135,000 persons imprisoned in the United States. Even if Prez Obama only released 6% of the current federal prison population, he would still need to grant over 12,000 federal offenders their freedom to make a gesture for the Pope comparable to what Cuba is claiming it has done.

I am not expecting to Prez Obama (or any state's Governor) to make a mass clemency gesture like this for the Pope's visit to the US.  But, as this new NPR story highlights, there are a number of criminal justice reform advocates who are hopeful that, at the very least, the Pope's visit will help kick-start federal criminal justice reform efforts. The NPR piece is headlined "Pope's U.S. Visit Spurs Catholic Support For Criminal Justice Reform," and it highlights that the "Pope will visit a prison in Pennsylvania next week and ... and faith leaders are using the opportunity to press Congress for action."

Some prior related posts on Pope Francis and criminal justice reform:

September 18, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Prisons and prisoners, Religion, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

"Here’s why Obama should pardon hundreds more women"

The title of this post is part of the headline of this recent Fusion commentary authored by Amy Ralston Povah. Here are excerpts:

After the fifth year in prison, each additional year begins to eat into the layers of your soul.  Parents pass away, friends drift off, spouses find someone else.  Children grow up, graduate, get married, have children of their own; holidays come and go, and when that 7th, 15th or 22nd year rolls around, you feel like your heart is being crushed.

I shared those emotions with the women I served time with at FCI Dublin, a correctional facility in northern California.  I was serving 24 years on a drug conspiracy charge, arrested for collecting bail money for my husband, who manufactured MDMA.  He was the kingpin, but he only received three years probation because he cooperated with the prosecutors.  I refused a plea bargain, and I got stuck in jail.

So when President Clinton commuted my sentence on July 7, 2000 — after I’d served 9 years and 3 months — I felt like I had won the lottery.  The prison compound erupted into cheers and marched me across the yard to the gate on the day I left.  And yet, it was a bittersweet victory.  While I was elated for myself, it was hard to walk away, knowing I would not see these women the next day, or possibly ever again.

I felt that mix of bittersweet emotions again this summer when President Obama commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders, more than any sitting president in the last 50 years.  It was the result of Clemency Project 2014, a federal initiative that encouraged over 35,000 prisoners to apply for clemency.  On one day, 42 men and four women were the lucky lottery winners chosen from a massive number of candidates....

Having served time with over a thousand women, I believe they are the hardest hit victims in the war on drugs.  Many women are indicted because they are merely a girlfriend or wife of a drug dealer, yet are not part of the inner circle and have limited information to plea bargain with.  Mandatory minimums are reserved for those who do not cut a deal with prosecutors.

Women are being overlooked by the Department of Justice as candidates worthy of a seat on that coveted commutation list.  Over the last 30 years, the female prison population has grown by over 800% while the male prison population grew 416% during the same timeframe.  More than half of the mothers in prison were the primary financial supporters of their children before they were incarcerated.  And the vast majority of women in federal prison were put there due to conspiracy laws that hold them equally culpable for the criminal actions of other co-defendants, often a spouse or boyfriend. In other words, many women are guilty by association.

There are hundreds of women sitting in federal prison on drug conspiracy charges who deserve clemency — most of them first offenders serving life without parole.  Alice Johnson is an accomplished playwright who has served 18 years on a life sentence for cocaine conspiracy and has the support of three members of Congress.  Josephine Ledezma has already served over 23 years and is still waiting to have her petition filed.  Sharanda Jones has served 15 years; filed for clemency in 2013 and has over 270,000 supporters on  Michelle West has served 22 years of a double life sentence, plus fifty years, in a case where the key witness was given immunity and never served a day for a murder he admitted to.

Some days, sitting in prison, you think life can’t get any worse.  And then another blow comes when 46 people receive clemency and your name is not on that list.  Many of the same women I said goodbye to in 2000 are still in prison, serving 30 years to life, even though, like myself, they were minor participants in a nonviolent drug conspiracy case.... But with a stroke of his pen, President Obama can help right the wrongs of the past and give these deserving women a second chance at life.  He should get started right away.

September 15, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, September 14, 2015

"How Obama can use his clemency power to help reverse racism"

The title of this post is the headline of this provocative new MSNBC commentary authored Mark Osler and Nkechi Taifa. Here are excerpts:

In the remaining months of his second term, President Barack Obama has the chance to deliver justice for thousands of people given overly-harsh sentences for drug crimes.  The White House is probably now contemplating the next batch of clemency grants, which is expected in October.

It is likely that the vast majority of those whose sentences would be shortened will be African American. That is as it should be given that past laws and policies, as well as prosecutors and presidents, have tilted the criminal justice system disproportionately against them.

On average, blacks face unequal treatment at each stage of the criminal justice system. They are stopped and arrested more frequently than others; they are less likely to receive favorable terms on bail; and they are more likely to be victims of prosecutorial misconduct. Blacks are more likely to accept unfair plea bargains and be sentenced to rigid, lengthy mandatory minimums, or even death.  Race mattered when blacks were disproportionately targeted, imprisoned, and sentenced beyond the bounds of reason.  Race should also matter in providing relief via clemency today.

Despite the facially neutral nature of current laws that do not intentionally discriminate, disparate treatment is nevertheless sewn into the structural fabric of institutions, allowing bias to occur without direct action by a specific person.

Today’s racism is subtle and structurally embedded in many police departments, prosecutor offices, and courtrooms.  It is found in laws that look fair, but nevertheless have a racially discriminatory impact.  For example, from 1986 through 2010, the federal sentencing guidelines and the primary federal narcotics statute mandated the same sentence for five grams of crack as they did for 500 grams of powder cocaine....

Moreover, we know that even now prosecutors use the law unfairly to punish black defendants.  Writing in the Daily Beast, Jay Michaelson reports that 95% of elected prosecutors are white, and that those prosecutors disproportionately use mandatory minimum sentences to incarcerate black defendants for longer periods of time than similarly situated whites.  Again, there is seldom a “smoking gun” tying white prosecutors to specific acts of racism.  But there is a growing consensus that the system is flawed and structurally biased against blacks.

The number of African-Americans jailed under these laws and policies soared in the past few decades.  Yet previous presidents predominantly used their power to pardon to benefit high profile white men, including Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, Scooter Libby, and Clinton donor and financier Marc Rich.  Indeed, President George W. Bush used the pardon power 200 times, but fewer than 16 of those were granted to black petitioners who have traditionally been unconnected to money, power and influence....

As the president’s clemency program accelerates over the 16 months remaining in his second and final term, we hope that he will look at the impact race has played in meting out unjust sentences.  We hope that he will broadly consider those who are worthy of a shortened sentence and a lengthened term of freedom and responsibility.  And we hope that among this group will be multitudes of eligible black men and women who will be able to be reunited with families and communities.  This does not reflect a racial bias.  It simply reflects the gut-wrenching reality of those disproportionately over-sentenced in the first place.

September 14, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Validity of Pennsylvania Gov halting of death executions considered by state Supreme Court

As reported in this new AP piece, "Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf's lawyers defended his use of death row reprieves to achieve a moratorium on executions, a promise he made on the campaign trail, while prosecutors challenged its constitutionality at a hearing Thursday before the state Supreme Court." Here is more on the hearing:

The lead attorney for Wolf, whose 7-month-old strategy has angered prosecutors and energized death penalty foes, said the only legal question is whether the governor has authority to issue reprieves.  "The answer is clearly 'yes,'" said H. Geoffrey Moulton Jr., a deputy in the governor's Office of General Counsel.  Moulton acknowledged that Wolf cannot suspend the death penalty but said he can grant temporary reprieves without having to explain his reasons.

A top lawyer for the Philadelphia district attorney's office, which filed a court challenge days after Wolf announced his plan, said the governor is improperly using reprieves by tying them to an overdue report from a legislative task force on capital punishment. "We're waiting for something to be satisfactorily addressed that can never be addressed at all," said Hugh Burns, chief of the office's appeals unit.

"You don't know that," Justice Max Baer interjected.  "We don't have the report."

All five justices quizzed the lawyers.  Justices Debra Todd and J. Michael Eakin questioned whether Wolf's strategy is technically a moratorium or merely a series of individual reprieves.  "He announced a moratorium, not a reprieve," Eakin said.

The case before the state's highest court case revolves around condemned prisoner Terrance Williams, whose scheduled March execution for the tire-iron beating death of another Philadelphia man more than 30 years ago was canceled by the first of three reprieves that Wolf's office says he has granted since February....

Wolf said he intends to continue granting reprieves until the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment makes its recommendations and they are "satisfactorily addressed."

Some prior related posts:

September 10, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Digging deeply into the back-end of criminal justice systems

Regular readers are accustomed to seeing my praise in this space for Margaret Love's commentary about the federal clemency process and for the commentary and coverage of a range of back-end criminal justice issues at the Collateral Consequences Resource Center. These new posts at CCRC provide yet more support for my view that any and everyone interested in the so-called "back-end" of American criminal justice systems should be reading everything Margaret Love has to say and all the posts at CCRC:

September 6, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

"Clemency 2.0"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Paul Larkin Jr. now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

A trope heard throughout criminal justice circles today is that the system is a dystopia. Although most of the discussion and proposed remedies have centered on sentencing or release, this article focuses on clemency, which has become a controversial subject.  The last few Presidents have rarely exercised their pardon power or have used it for ignoble reasons.  The former withers the clemency power; the latter besmirches it.

President Obama sought to kick start the clemency process through the Clemency Project 2014, which sought to provide relief to the 30,000 crack cocaine offenders unable to take advantage of the prospective-only nature Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.  That initiative, however, is unlikely to jump-start the clemency power since it is quite limited — to drug offenders unable to benefit from the new crack-to-powder sentencing ratio.  But the vast expansion in the size of the federal correctional system, combined with the corresponding increase in the costs of federal corrections, may spur the president to renew his resort to clemency.  If so, the question becomes, How?

The discussion proceeds as follows: Part I traces the history of the clemency process, focusing on the President’s Article II power to grant an offender mercy.  Part II will ask why the clemency power has fallen into desuetude or disdain over the last few decades, and Part III will discuss whether clemency is likely to be reborn in the near future.  Part IV will conclude by recommending that the problem lies not in the power it-self, but in the process by which cases are brought to the President for his review and maybe in the people we have elected to make those decisions.

August 26, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, August 24, 2015

"Justice Department Administration of the President's Pardon Power: A Case Study in Institutional Conflict of Interest"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Margaret Colgate Love now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The president’s constitutional pardon power has been administered by the attorney general since before the Civil War, but this arrangement has never been adequately explained or justified. On its face it appears rife with conflict of institutional interests: how could the agency responsible for convicting people and putting them in prison also be tasked with forgiving them and setting them free? In spite of these apparently antithetical missions, the Justice Department managed the pardon program in a low-key and reliable manner for well over a century, staffing it with a handful of career lawyers operating on a shoestring budget, and churning out hundreds of favorable clemency recommendations each year for the president’s consideration. While there were occasionally controversial grants there were never scandalous ones, and the president was able to use his power to good effect in wartime and in peace.

It is only in the past two decades that questions have been raised about the integrity and functionality of the pardon process, focusing squarely on the agency and individuals standing as gatekeeper to the president’s power. President Obama’s decision in early 2014 to launch a large-scale clemency initiative, and the Justice Department’s unprecedented decision to rely upon a consortium of private organizations to manage it, make this a propitious time to consider whether the presidency is well-served by an arrangement making officials responsible for prosecuting crime the primary source of clemency advice.

This essay concludes that the culture and mission of the Justice Department have in recent years become determinedly and irreconcilably hostile to the beneficent purposes of the pardon power, and to its regular use by the president. The only way to deal with the institutional conflict that produced and perpetuates this situation is to transfer the pardon program to the president’s direct supervision in the Executive Office of the President. This move will have a variety of benefits, including facilitating the president’s ability to oversee the workings of the criminal justice system, for which he has a special responsibility under the Constitution. More specifically, it will introduce salutary political accountability to federal prosecutions through presidential oversight and potential revision. Finally, it will give the president control for the first time in decades over his own “benign prerogative.”

August 24, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, August 03, 2015

"Let's hear from the presidential candidates on clemency reform"

The title of this post is the headline of this timely new op-ed authored by Rachel Barkow and Mark Osler.  Here are excerpts:

On Thursday in Cleveland, Fox News will host the first substantive presidential debate. The moderators will undoubtedly pepper 10 Republican candidates with questions about health care, government spending, foreign affairs and immigration.

For once, they should also ask the participants what they would do with one of the most powerful tools given to the chief executive by the United States Constitution -- the pardon power, which vests the president with the unilateral and unchecked authority to reduce sentences of individuals who are currently incarcerated and clear the records of those who are already done serving their sentences.

Unfortunately, we usually pay attention to clemency only after it has been used in a controversial way. When Bill Clinton pardoned Marc Rich, we suddenly cared about clemency. When George W. Bush commuted the sentence of (but declined to pardon) Scooter Libby, people on both sides of the issue were upset. And no one has forgotten the Nixon pardon.

But the framers intended clemency to perform a systematic function in the constitutional system of checking overbroad laws and correcting injustices in individual cases, and that requires foresight, principles of action, and attention to structure. All of the modern presidents have failed to fulfill the framers' vision. Yet we never ask candidates how they would use this enormous power before they enter office — we just act surprised when they use it.

This is the right time to change that dynamic. President Barack Obama has announced an intention (so far unrealized) to use clemency aggressively to address the over-incarceration of narcotics defendants, raising the profile of this issue. That project has also brought to the surface both underlying policy issues and an unwieldy consideration process that is plagued with as many as seven levels of review.

And given the increasing bipartisan support to address mass incarceration, it is an opening to see how the candidates view the president's role in dealing with that issue. At a Republican debate, it opens the door for the candidates to critique the Obama administration's approach and to reveal what they would do to change what past presidents agree is an inefficient and ineffectual clemency bureaucracy. Republicans often value efficiency and cost savings, and a properly functioning clemency process offers an opportunity for both....

Whatever the answer, it will tell us a great deal about them. We will learn what kind of vision, if any, they have for changing entrenched and failed bureaucracies. And we will learn how seriously they view the problem of mass incarceration and criminal justice supervision in this country.

Our plea to the moderators of this and future debates (Democrat and Republican) is thus a simple one: For the first time, ask the candidates how they would use clemency, that great unchecked power of the presidency. They will certainly ask those who seek to be president how they would use the terrible swift sword of war; they should also be bold in asking the candidates how they would use this powerful tool of mercy in an age of mass incarceration and punitiveness.

August 3, 2015 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Clemency and Pardons, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, July 27, 2015

John Oliver (often amusingly) covers Prez Obama's clemencies and mandatory minimums

July 27, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Mr. Chairman, the president’s clemency power is beyond dispute"

The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary published in The Hill authored by Samuel Morison, who formerly served as a staff attorney in the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney.  The piece responds to the curious letter sent by House Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte and fellow Republican committee to AG Lynch (discussed here) expressing "deep concern" for how the President has (finally) started to make serious use of his constitutional clemency powers.  Here are excerpts (with links included):

Goodlatte and his colleagues are certainly entitled to take issue with Obama’s decision to grant a measure of relief to persons sentenced under a set of laws that are widely viewed to have been, in practice if not by design, racially discriminatory and unjust.  But their constitutional claims are so illiterate that it is difficult to tell whether they expect the attorney general to take them seriously. 

The chairman’s criticism ignores settled practice stretching back to the beginning of the Republic.  Throughout American history, presidents have granted executive clemency to “specific classes of offenders” on dozens of occasions, from George Washington’s pardon of the Whiskey Rebels in 1795 to George H.W. Bush’s pardon of the Iran-Contra defendants in 1992.  Perhaps more to the point, in the early 1960s, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson commuted the sentences of several hundred prisoners serving mandatory minimum sentences under the Narcotics Control Act of 1956, without objection by Congress.

The historical lack of controversy shouldn’t be surprising.  Under our tripartite system of government, an act of executive clemency in no sense “usurps” legislative or judicial authority.  Rather, in the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, it “is a part of the Constitutional scheme.  When granted it is the determination of the ultimate [executive] authority that the public welfare will be better served by inflicting less than what the judgment fixed.”  The president’s pardoning authority is therefore limited only by the text of the Constitution itself, not by the transitory terms of the criminal code.  Indeed, that was the Framers’ point in giving the power to the president in the first place, to act as a check on the other branches.

To be sure, the president’s systematic exercise of the pardon power to benefit “specific classes of offenders” has not gone entirely unchallenged by Congress.  But the Supreme Court long ago resolved this dispute in favor of Obama’s authority to redress the injustices entrenched by the current federal sentencing regime.  In the aftermath of the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson issued a series of amnesty proclamations that restored the civil rights of former Confederate sympathizers.  This was enormously controversial at the time, not least because it undermined the Radical Republican’s designs for the post-war reconstruction of Southern society.

In the ensuing legal battle, the Supreme Court repeatedly struck down Congress’s attempts to constrain the president’s pardoning authority.  In 1866, the Court held, without qualification, that “[t]his power of the President is not subject to legislative control.  Congress can neither limit the effect of his pardon, nor exclude from its exercise any class of offenders.  The benign prerogative of mercy reposed in him cannot be fettered by any legislative restrictions.” 

The Court also rejected the effort to draw a false distinction between pardons granted to specific individuals on a case-by-case basis and a pardon granted to a class of persons by means of an amnesty proclamation, precisely the claim that House Republicans are making against Obama.  The president is therefore authorized to grant a general amnesty without congressional sanction, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.

Finally, there is no reason to doubt that the president can grant clemency because of his own policy judgment about a particular law.  As one conservative federal judge recently opined, it is a “settled, bedrock principle of constitutional law” that “the president may decline to prosecute or may pardon because of the president’s own constitutional concerns about a law or because of policy objections to the law.” 

The historical irony, of course, is that a presidential power forged in a bitter political dispute over the property rights of Confederate rebels is now being used to afford a measure of justice to federal drug offenders, who are disproportionately African-American.  Turnabout, I suppose, is fair play.  But the president’s power is beyond dispute.

A few prior recent related posts:

July 27, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Do gubernatorial moratoria on executions impact securing of death sentences?

The question in the title of this post is raised by the start of the capital phase of the death penalty trial of Aurora theater shooter James Holmes and is discussed in this interesting Los Angeles Times article.  The article is headlined "Death penalty is sought against James Holmes, but governor stands in the way," and here are excerpts:

When the jury found James E. Holmes guilty, Marcus Weaver cried. For his friend Rebecca Wingo, who died beside him in the Aurora, Colo., multiplex. For the dozens of victims in the 2012 rampage during a midnight showing of "The Dark Knight Rises." For the families of the dead and wounded. Then he cautioned that last week's verdict "is just a stepping stone" on the path to justice.

The next step, Weaver hoped, would be the death penalty. But even if the jury decides to sentence Holmes to death in the penalty phase of his trial, which begins Wednesday, there are some questions about whether the sentence will be imposed. In the time since the Aurora shooting case got underway, Gov. John Hickenlooper has made it his policy that no one in Colorado will be executed as long as he is in office....

Juries across the U.S. continue to hand down death sentences, and prosecutors continue to seek them. But the effective moratorium in Colorado — no capital punishment can be carried out unless the governor signs the death warrant — is part of a political retreat that is gaining momentum. The number of U.S. executions has dropped dramatically since 1999, along with the number of death sentences handed down by juries.

Governors in four states, including Hickenlooper, have declared that they will not sign death warrants during their terms, citing the uneven way the punishment is carried out. This year, for the first time since these policies were adopted in Oregon, Colorado, Washington and Pennsylvania, major capital trials are taking place in two of those states that are testing juries' willingness to carry out the ultimate punishment. "What's the role of these reprieves? I don't think there's an independent effect, but it's part of an overall drift away from the death penalty," said Michael Radelet, a University of Colorado sociology professor who has studied the punishment for 35 years.

Although a gubernatorial moratorium will undoubtedly spur debate about a critically important issue, death penalty critics worry that the policies ultimately could end up changing nothing. Once the governors leave office, their replacements could decide to go back to signing death warrants. Anyone whose execution was on hold could again be sent to the death chamber....

In Washington state, 15 months after Gov. Jay Inslee imposed a death penalty moratorium, a Seattle jury in May refused to sentence Joseph McEnroe to death for killing six of his then-girlfriend's relatives on Christmas Eve 2007. The victims spanned three generations of Michele Anderson's family, including a 5-year-old girl and her 3-year-old brother. Anderson, also charged in the killings, goes on trial in September.

The Holmes case is the first death penalty trial in Colorado since Hickenlooper announced in 2013 that he would grant an "indefinite reprieve" to Nathan Dunlap, who killed four people at a suburban Denver Chuck E. Cheese's pizza restaurant in 1993 and was sentenced to death three years later.

The reprieve was granted as Dunlap's execution date neared and will last as long as the Democrat remains in office. Hickenlooper, who campaigned in 2010 as a death penalty supporter, has since said he is against capital punishment.

The political pushback was swift. Moments after the governor announced Dunlap's reprieve from the rotunda of the Capitol in Denver, Arapahoe County Dist. Atty. George Brauchler denounced Hickenlooper from the Capitol steps. Brauchler called Dunlap's execution "a no-brainer," according to the Denver Post, and said the governor refused "to make any hard decision today.... This is inaction. This is shrugging. This is not justice."

Brauchler is the same district attorney who said he would seek the death penalty against Holmes. He also turned down Holmes' offer to plead guilty in exchange for life in prison without a chance of parole, and he is leading the prosecution case against the gunman.

Still, a sitting governor's ability to veto a death penalty appears to be absolute in Colorado. And though many argue that such moratoriums are political posturing with no lasting effect, others say such gubernatorial declarations are a force for change.

"I think it's impactful when the governor of your state says your state should never be involved in killing anyone," said Craig Silverman, a former Denver chief deputy district attorney. "However, in the Holmes case we have jurors who are all death qualified, meaning they have committed to following Colorado law, which includes capital punishment, but we have a governor who is not."

July 22, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

GOP House members request AG Lynch to provide accounting of Prez Obama's commutations

As reported via this official press release, it would appear that some GOP House members, seemingly concerned with how President Obama is now using his clemency powers, have decided to question Attorney General Loretta Lynch about what her boss is doing.  Here is what the press release explains (along with the full-text of letter, which is also available at this link): 

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and 18 Republican Members of the House Judiciary Committee today pressed for answers about the Obama Administration’s unprecedented clemency program for certain federal drug offenders in a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

Although the Justice Department’s own manual states that commutation of sentence is “an extraordinary remedy that is rarely granted,” the Obama Administration last year announced a clemency program for certain federal drug offenders and asked the defense bar to recruit candidates for executive clemency.  To date, 89 federal offenders have received sentence commutations, with the vast majority of those commutations going to federal drug offenders.

Here some key language from the letter, which I find curious and questionable in a variety of respects (especially the language I have emphasized below):

As Members of the Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Department of Justice, including the functions performed by the Office of the Pardon Attorney, we are deeply concerned that the President continues to use his pardon power to benefit specific classes of offenders, or for political purposes. No one disputes that the President possesses the constitutional authority to grant pardons and commutations. However, as the Department’s own U.S. Attorney’s Manual states, commutation of sentence is “an extraordinary remedy that is rarely granted.”

Additionally, the fact that the Department’s clemency initiative is focused solely on federal drug offenders continues this Administration’s plainly unconstitutional practice of picking and choosing which laws to enforce and which to change. This is not, as the Founders intended, an exercise of the power to provide for “exceptions in favour of unfortunate guilt,” but instead the use of the pardon power to benefit an entire class of offenders who were duly convicted in a court of law – not to mention a blatant usurpation of the lawmaking authority of the Legislative branch.

The parts of the letter I have stressed strike me as curious and suspect because they seem to have little legal or factual foundation (though they track quite closely to comments made a day earlier by Bill Otis at Crime & Consequences):

1.  Legally, there is no clear constitutional or other legal restriction on the President deciding, if he so chooses, to use his "pardon power to benefit specific classes of offenders, or for political purposes."  Indeed, the constitutional history of the pardon power, buttressed by comments in the Federalist Papers (see No. 74 and this Heritage memorandum), suggests that broad clemency power was preserved by the Framers in part to enable the Prez to be able to use this power to benefit specific classes of offenders, or for political purposes, when desired.  To this end, Pardon historian P.S. Ruckman rightly calls out this portion of the letter for "a very special kind of stupidity and ignorance."

2.  Factually, the current Obama clemency/commutation initiative, extending so far to just reduce the extreme prison sentence of 89 of roughly 100,000 current federal drug prisoners, in absolutely no way involves "picking and choosing which laws to enforce and which to change" nor does it somehow amount to a "blatant usurpation of the lawmaking authority of the Legislative branch."   Perhaps these assertion would make some sense if the President did in fact really grant full pardons to 100% (or even 75% or even 51%) of all federal drug prisoners/offenders and thereby wiped out entirely the convictions and sentences of truly an "entire class of offenders who were duly convicted in a court of law." But, so far, President Obama has merely shortened the extreme prison sentences of significantly less than .1% of current federal drug prisoners.

I could go on, but I will stop here by highlighting that this letter shows ways in which the current polarization of DC and the extreme disaffinity of the GOP for the current Prez necessarily impedes on the ability for folks inside the Beltway to move forward effectively with sound, sober and sensible sentence reforms.  Signing this suspect letter are a number of House GOP members who have recently spoken in favor of significant federal sentencing reform to reduce undue reliance on excessive terms of incarceration for federal drug offenders. But when Prez Obama actually does something in service to all the reform talk in Washington, his political opponents (perhaps spurred on by Bill Otis and others who oppose any and all criminal justice reforms) cannot resist the political instinct to complain.

July 15, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

NYU Law creates Clemency Resource Center, a "pop-up, pro-bono law office to submit petitions"

Download (1)I was very excited to learn via a press release that NYU School of Law has just "announced the launch of the Clemency Resource Center (CRC), a pop-up law office within the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law (CACL)."  Via the CACL's website, here is what this important new "pop-up law office" is all about and what it is planning to do:

The CRC will exist for one year, with the sole purpose of preparing and submitting federal clemency petitions at no cost to prisoners.  Beginning with a staff of seven attorneys, the CRC will work closely with Clemency Project 2014, an ongoing initiative designed to identify and find counsel for worthy clemency candidates, and will provide pro bono assistance to federal prisoners who likely would have received shorter sentences had they been sentenced today.

The CRC was co-founded by Rachel Barkow, Segal Family Professor of Regulatory Law and Policy at NYU Law, and Mark Osler, who holds the Robert and Marion Short Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of St. Thomas.  Erin Collins, a former public defender and acting assistant professor at NYU Law, serves as executive director.  Generously funded by Open Society Foundations, the CRC will begin work in August.

The CRC is unique in that it addresses an immediate short-term opportunity.  President Obama has clearly signaled his intent to use the constitutional tool of clemency to address over-incarceration.

Clemency Project 2014 aims to identify all federal inmates who seek help and meet criteria released by the US Department of Justice.  The project relies entirely on the help of pro bono attorneys to review and submit petitions.  “Too many non-violent prisoners are serving unduly harsh prison terms based on repudiated laws and policies.  That means we have quite a bit of work ahead,” said Cynthia Roseberry, project manager for Clemency Project 2014.  “This is an all-hands-on-deck situation and we welcome the support of the Clemency Resource Center.”

“The CRC isn’t a clinic, or a conventional legal aid organization, or an advocacy group. It is a factory of justice,” said Osler, a former federal prosecutor.

CACL has worked on clemency cases and reform of the pardon process since 2013 as part of the Mercy Project, an initiative that pursues commutations for federal prisoners who are serving very long sentences for typically non-violent drug crimes.

“The Clemency Resource Center is the latest step in our efforts to improve criminal justice in the United States and to help correct past miscarriages of justice,” said Barkow, faculty director for CACL.

During its year of operation, the CRC will utilize the talents of CACL student fellows as well as of CACL executive director Deborah Gramiccioni, a former federal prosecutor in New Jersey and at the US Department of Justice in Washington, DC.

I adore the notion of this new Clemency Resource Center as a "factory of justice," and I am pleased to learn that this factory is being backed by Open Society funding and will be focused on churning out (surely top-notch) federal clemency petitions for the next year. That said, I hope that everyone realizes that we desperately need many more factories of justice working on not just federal clemency petitions, but also state clemency petitions and also lots and lots of aggressive state and federal criminal justice reform litigation.

July 14, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Highlighting why dozens of commutations barely move the mass incarceration needle

President Obama's action to commute the sentences of 46 drug offenders yesterday (basics here) merits the label historic.  But, as two recent commentaries highlight, the decision seems more compelling than it is truly consequential given the massive size of the federal criminal justice population.  Here are links to and snippets from the pieces that provide important (and somewhat depressing) context for what the Prez did yesterday:

From Margy Love at The Crime Report, "Clemency is Not the Answer":

[T]he problem of unjust sentences is simply too large to deal with through the clemency mechanism. When Lyndon Johnson commuted 200 drug sentences in the 1960s, almost everyone then in prison who deserved relief got it, thanks to the staffing efforts of the Bureau of Prisons. Today, given the massive number of people prosecuted for federal drug crimes in the past 25 years, and the fundamental rethinking of federal drug sentences now underway, potentially deserving prisoners are legion.

Between 1990 and 2007, nearly 10,000 people were sentenced to prison terms of 30 years or more for crimes involving drugs or firearms. Twice that number received sentences of at least 20 years. Trying to produce useful and reliable advice for the President about more than a token number of these individuals is too great a burden for the DOJ’s Justice Department’s tiny pardon staff. But the President cannot be expected to put his reputation on the line on the basis of anything less.

In addition to the practical problems raised by trying to force so many prisoner petitions through an administrative bottleneck onto a busy President's plate, there are institutional reasons why executive clemency is the wrong tool for dealing with systemic problems in the penal system.

From Steven Nelson at U.S. News & World Report, "Obama's 46 Commutations Barely Scratch the Surface: Thousands more may die in prison for nonviolent crimes":

Obama said 14 of the people he’s granting freedom would have otherwise died behind bars. Precise numbers are unclear, but in 2013 the American Civil Liberties Union reported at least 3,278 people were serving life without the possibility of parole for nonviolent crimes. More than 2,500 of those cases involved drug crimes.

"[T]here still remain thousands of Americans languishing in prisons serving sentences that have been repudiated by both Congress and the president," said Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., a leading supporter of drug law reform. "I hope the president continues this push for justice for all of them.”

Beth Curtis profiles 14 other people on her website who are serving life sentences for nonviolent marijuana convictions, none of whom received clemency Monday. She vetted each to ensure they had no previous convictions involving violence or other drugs. Other sources have higher estimates for marijuana-specific life sentences. The Clemency Report says there were 54 sentences of life without parole between 1996 and 2014.

“Frankly, my belief is that there is no place for life without parole for any nonviolent drug offender,” says Curtis, whose brother John Knock is serving life in prison for a marijuana dealing conviction. “It's not fiscally responsible and the sentence doesn't fit the crime.” Michael Collins, policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance, echoed other reformers, saying he welcomes the new commutations, but “we need much more action."

Prior recent related posts:

July 14, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, July 13, 2015

Prez Obama commutes sentences for 46 federal drug prisoners (with a video message)

Neil Eggleston, Counsel to the President, has this new White House Blog posting titled "President Obama Announces 46 Commutations in Video Address: 'America Is a Nation of Second Chances'." Here is the text of the posting, with links worth following:

As a former Assistant U.S. Attorney and criminal defense attorney, I'm well acquainted with how federal sentencing practices can, in too many instances, lead nonviolent drug offenders to spend decades, if not life, in prison.  Now, don't get me wrong, many people are justly punished for causing harm and perpetuating violence in our communities.  But, in some cases, the punishment required by law far exceeded the offense.

These unduly harsh sentences are one of the reasons the President is committed to using all the tools at his disposal to remedy unfairness in our criminal justice system.  Today, he is continuing this effort by granting clemency to 46 men and women, nearly all of whom would have already served their time and returned to society if they were convicted of the exact same crime today.

In a video released today, the President underscored the responsibility and opportunity that comes with a commutation.

The President also shared his thoughts in a personal letter written to each of the 46 individuals receiving a commutation today.

In taking this step, the President has now issued nearly 90 commutations, the vast majority of them to non-violent offenders sentenced for drug crimes under outdated sentencing rules. 

While I expect the President will issue additional commutations and pardons before the end of his term, it is important to recognize that clemency alone will not fix decades of overly punitive sentencing policies.  Tune in tomorrow as the President shares additional thoughts on how, working together, we can bring greater fairness to our criminal justice system while keeping our communities safe in an address to the NAACP.

A list of the 46 lucky individuals receiving clemency today can be found here. A too quick review of the list suggests that the vast majority of those receiving clemency today were convicted of crack offenses, though I did notice a couple of marijuana offenders in the group. 

July 13, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Prez Obama with big plans (finally!!) to prioritize criminal justice reform efforts

Images (11)Way back in 2007, then-Prez-candidate Barack Obama on the campaign trail made much of the need for nationwide (and especially federal drug sentencing) criminal justice reform in a speech to Howard Univesity (which I discussed in this 2010 law review article).  In that speech, candidate Obama promised that as President he would be "willing to brave the politics" to help engineer criminal justice reforms.  As long-time readers know from my commentary here and elsewhere, I have long been disappointed that Prez Obama has left us waiting a long time for the reality of his policy work to match the rhetoric of his first political campaign.  

But now, roughly eight years after making campaign proimises at Howard Univesity (and, tellingly, after the conclusion of every significant nation election in which Prez Obama is the most significant player), it appears that Prez Obama is finally poised to invest his political muscle and capital on crimnal justice reform.  This effective Bloomberg Politics article, headlined "Obama to Push U.S. Sentencing Change Backed by Koch Brothers," explains how and provides effective context:

The White House is preparing to seize advantage of bipartisan concern over the burgeoning U.S. prison population and push for legislation that would reduce federal sentences for nonviolent crimes.

President Barack Obama will champion sweeping reform of the criminal justice system during a speech to the NAACP annual convention on Tuesday in Philadelphia, press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday. Obama will present ideas to make the system “safer, fairer and more effective,” Earnest said.

Later in the week, Obama will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit a federal prison when he goes to a medium-security facility in El Reno, Oklahoma.  He’ll also sit for an interview with Vice News for an HBO documentary on the criminal justice system, Earnest said.

Obama came to office promising to reduce the number of Americans imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses, and in 2010 he signed a law reducing disparities in sentences for possession of crack and powder cocaine. Some Republicans and police organizations criticized the moves as too lenient, but now a bipartisan coalition that includes Obama’s chief political antagonists, billionaires Charles and David Koch, have joined him to support relaxing federal sentencing guidelines.

Key lawmakers from both parties have been invited to the White House next week to discuss strategy. And Obama is expected to soon issue a spate of commutations for nonviolent drug offenders identified by a Justice Department program launched last year. Top officials from the department, including Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, have recently met with members of Congress to express support for sentencing-reform legislation.

“Engagement with the president has been lacking for the past six years, but this is one topic where it has been refreshingly bipartisan,” Representative Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican who heads the House Oversight Committee, said in a telephone interview....

Chaffetz said he was optimistic that a package of bills would advance because of a diverse coalition of supporters lined up behind it. The president dubbed the legislation “a big sack of potatoes” in a meeting with lawmakers in February, Chaffetz said. The composition of the legislation isn’t final.

The Koch brothers, who are major Republican donors, support a bill introduced last month by Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, and Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat, that would encourage probation rather than imprisonment for relatively minor, nonviolent offenses and improve parole programs in order to reduce recidivism.

The Sensenbrenner-Scott bill is modeled on state efforts to reduce incarceration. While the federal prison population has grown 15 percent in the last decade, state prisons hold 4 percent fewer people, according to Sensenbrenner’s office. Thirty-two states have saved a cumulative $4.6 billion in the past five years from reduced crime and imprisonment, his office said in a report....

Representative Bob Goodlatte, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, held a meeting in late June to listen to proposals from lawmakers in both parties. And Chaffetz, who described the Republican leadership in the House as “very optimistic and encouraging,” scheduled hearings on the issue by his committee for July 14 and 15. “I don’t normally do two days of hearings; we’re giving it that much attention,” Chaffetz said. “So it has more momentum than anybody realizes.”

There is a significant obstacle on the other side of the Capitol: Senator Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who chairs his chamber’s Judiciary Committee.... But supporters of the House legislation have reason for optimism: Last month, Grassley announced he would work on a compromise in the Senate.

While Grassley has indicated a willingness to reduce penalties for some crimes, he wants to increase mandatory minimum sentences for other offenses, a Senate Republican aide said. The person requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. That could make sentencing changes an easier sell to tough-on-crime voters, but endanger the support of lawmakers who see mandatory minimums as bad policy. “There does appear hope for a bipartisan compromise,” Earnest said Monday. “We obviously welcome that opportunity.”

Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican who has long championed criminal justice reform, is leading negotiations with Grassley. He’s backed by Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the senior Democrat on Grassley’s committee, and Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate.

The talks remain sensitive. During a Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, Leahy -- admitting he already knew the answer -- asked Yates, who was testifying before the panel, to restate her support for sentencing reform. “I was born at night, but not last night,” Grassley interjected. “And I know that question was in reference to me, and I want everybody to know that we’re working hard on getting a sentencing-reform compromise that we can introduce. And if we don’t get one pretty soon, I’ll probably have my own ideas to put forward.”

July 13, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, July 10, 2015

Pennsylvania Attorney General calls Governor's execution moratorium an "egregious violation" of the state constitution

As reported in this local article, headlined "Kane asks court to end Wolf's death-penalty ban," the top lawyer and prosecutor in Pennsylvania does not think much of her Governor's decision earlier this year to declare a moratorium on executions. Here are the details on the latest chapter concerning the continuing constitutional commotion over capital punishment in the Keystone state:

Calling Gov. Wolf's moratorium on the death penalty "an egregious violation" of the state constitution, Pennsylvania's top prosecutor is asking its Supreme Court to clear the path for the state's first execution in more than a decade.

In a filing Wednesday, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane asked the court to allow the execution of Hubert L. Michael Jr., who confessed to murdering a York County teenager two decades ago. Kane argued that it is "blatantly unconstitutional" for Wolf to stay all death sentences, and that allowing Wolf's moratorium to stand would effectively grant him the authority to ignore any laws with which he does not agree.

"In this case, it would allow him to negate a death sentence authorized by the General Assembly, imposed by a jury, and subjected to exhaustive judicial review . . . based on nothing more than personal disapproval and personal public policy beliefs," said the 25-page brief, filed by the attorney general and two of her top deputies. It added: "The governor must execute laws, not sabotage them."...

Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan said the governor had no immediate comment but would soon be "responding to the filing." Wolf in February imposed a moratorium on executions until he receives the report of a task force studying the future of capital punishment, unleashing a new round of praise and criticism. At the time, 183 men and women were on death row, confined to their cells 23 hours a day. Michael, of Lemoyne, Cumberland County, was awaiting execution for the 1993 kidnapping of Krista Eng, 16. His death warrant has been signed four times. Another convict spared by Wolf's moratorium is Terrance Williams, 48, a former star quarterback at Germantown High School sentenced to death for the 1984 murder of Amos Norwood, a 56-year-old Germantown church volunteer. He was to be executed in March.

Kane's brief asked the high court for "extraordinary relief," arguing Wolf only has constitutional power to issue reprieves of specific sentences - not an entire class of sentences - and under certain circumstances can grant a commutation or pardon. Reprieves, she argued, are meant to be temporary - usually to allow inmates to pursue legal remedies. When Wolf announced his moratorium, he wrote that he would lift it after seeing the report's recommendations and after "all concerns are addressed satisfactorily."

"What constitutes the point at which 'all concerns are addressed satisfactorily?' What are the concerns? Who is going to determine whether and when they are satisfactorily addressed?" said the filing, signed by Lawrence M. Cherba, who heads the office's criminal division, and Amy Zapp, who oversees the appeals section. "In law and in reality, the governor . . . seeks to replace judicial review of capital sentencing with his own review based on his own personal standard of satisfaction, namely an infallible judicial process that can never be attained," it argued. "Such a roadblock to death-sentence executions is impermissible."

Some prior related posts:

July 10, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, July 04, 2015

"Obama Plans Broader Use of Clemency to Free Nonviolent Drug Offenders"

The title of this post is the headline of this encouraging lengthy front-page New York Times article. Here are excerpts:

Sometime in the next few weeks, aides expect President Obama to issue orders freeing dozens of federal prisoners locked up on nonviolent drug offenses. With the stroke of his pen, he will probably commute more sentences at one time than any president has in nearly half a century.

The expansive use of his clemency power is part of a broader effort by Mr. Obama to correct what he sees as the excesses of the past, when politicians eager to be tough on crime threw away the key even for minor criminals.  With many Republicans and Democrats now agreeing that the nation went too far, Mr. Obama holds the power to unlock that prison door, especially for young African-­American and Hispanic men disproportionately affected.

But even as he exercises authority more assertively than any of his modern predecessors, Mr. Obama has only begun to tackle the problem he has identified.  In the next weeks, the total number of commutations for Mr. Obama’s presidency may surpass 80, but more than 30,000 federal inmates have come forward in response to his administration’s call for clemency applications.  A cumbersome review process has advanced only a small fraction of them.  And just a small fraction of those have reached the president’s desk for a signature.

“I think they honestly want to address some of the people who have been oversentenced in the last 30 years,” said Julie Stewart, the founder and president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a group advocating changes in sentencing. “I’m not sure they envisioned that it would be as complicated as it is, but it has become more complicated, whether it needs to be or not, and that’s what has bogged down the process.”...

“It’s a time when conservatives and liberals and libertarians and lots of different people on the political spectrum” have “come together in order to focus attention on excessive sentences, the costs and the like, and the need to correct some of those excesses,” said Neil Eggleston, the White House counsel who recommends clemency petitions to Mr. Obama.  “So I think the president sees the commutations as a piece of that entire process.”

The challenge has been finding a way to use Mr. Obama’s clemency power in the face of bureaucratic and legal hurdles without making a mistake that would be devastating to the effort’s political viability.  The White House has not forgotten the legacy of Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who raped a woman while furloughed from prison and became a powerful political symbol that helped doom the presidential candidacy of Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts in 1988.

But with time running short in Mr. Obama’s presidency, the White House has pushed the Justice Department to send more applicants more quickly.  Mr. Eggleston told the department not to interpret guidelines too narrowly because it is up to the president to decide, according to officials.  If it seems like a close case, he told the department to send it over.

Deborah Leff, the department’s pardon attorney, has likewise pressed lawyers representing candidates for clemency to hurry up and send more cases her way. “If there is one message I want you to take away today, it’s this: Sooner is better,” she told lawyers in a video seminar obtained by USA Today. “Delaying is not helpful.”...

In his second term, Mr. Obama embarked on an effort to use clemency and has raised his total commutations to 43, a number he may double this month. The initiative was begun last year by James M. Cole, then the deputy attorney general, who set criteria for who might qualify: generally nonviolent inmates who have served more than 10 years in prison, have behaved well while incarcerated and would not have received as lengthy a sentence under today’s revised rules....

Margaret Love, who served as pardon attorney under the first Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton and now represents prisoners applying for clemency, said the process had become a mess. “It’s really poor management,” she said. “These are people who don’t have any history with sentence reduction. They’ve been putting people in prison all their lives. They don’t know how to get them out.”...

In December, Mr. Obama commuted the sentences of eight drug offenders, and in March he followed up with 22 more.  If he accepts most of the latest applications sent to the White House, some officials said it would probably double that last batch of 22, exceeding the 36 commutations Mr. Clinton issued at one time on his last day in office. Among those Mr. Obama granted clemency in March were eight prisoners serving life sentences for crimes like possession with intent to distribute cocaine, growing more than 1,000 marijuana plants or possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

Needless to say, I am pleased to hear this report that dozens of additional clemency grants for nonviolent drug offenders may be coming soon from the Obama Administration.  But even if Obama were, after 18 months of lots of big talk about a clemency push, to now commute next week as many as 80 federal drug prisoners, this would still be not be as substantively consequential for the federal prison population as the 400+ drug defendants who will sentenced to lengthy federal prison terms the very same week!  Roughly speaking, in the months since the clemency talk got started, perhaps as many as an additional 35,000 drug offenders (many of whom are nonviolent) have been sentenced to significant federal terms. 

One of many reasons I have been distinctively skeptical and cynical concerning Clemency Project 2014 and related clemency work generated by the Obama Administration's clemency talk was my fear that Prez Obama would lack the courage and desire to commute many thousands of federal sentences. Practically speaking, unless and until the President starts talking about mass commutations, truly significant and consequential sentencing reforms and relief have to come from Congress, the Sentencing Commission or the courts.  (Indeed, rather than worry too much about clemency particulars, I wish the New York Times and all those concerned about mass incarceration in the federal system would focus on the profound impact that the Supreme Court's recent Johnson ruling could have if (and only if) Obama's Department of Justice and the US Sentencing Commission and lower courts apply it broadly and enhance its potential impact.)

July 4, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Reviewing the energies and intricacies involved in Clemency Project 2014

Download (1)The July 2015 issue of the ABA Journal has this very lengthy new piece reporting on the work of Clemency Project 2014.  The piece, headlined "Clemency Project 2014 is out to help prisoners doing excessive time due to inflexible sentencing," and here are excerpts:

[L]ast year, the Department of Justice announced an extraordinary project that could provide relief to ... perhaps thousands of [federal prisonsers]. In January 2014, the department announced a plan to shorten thousands of long sentences handed down for nonviolent drug crimes, using President Barack Obama's clemency power.

It's a radical departure from the way modern presidents have used clemency. Rather than correcting injustices here and there, the project seeks to systematically reduce sentences handed down during an era of inflexible sentencing.

Equally extraordinary was the Justice Department's call for help from the private bar. Because an influx of pro se petitions could overwhelm Justice's small Office of the Pardon Attorney, the DOJ asked private attorneys to volunteer their help.

Enter Clemency Project 2014. About 1,500 volunteer attorneys have come forward to help eligible prisoners submit the best possible clemency petitions. This small volunteer army is being led by five groups of criminal justice stakeholders: the American Bar Association's Criminal Justice Section, the American Civil Liberties Union, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and a group of federal defenders—the heads of the 84 offices of federal public or community defenders.

"It is unprecedented, it is important — and the chance of a lifetime for a defense attorney to be able to walk someone out the prison doors this way," says Donna Lee Elm, the federal defender for the Middle District of Florida and part of the CP14 management.

Clemency cases move slowly; FAMM says an answer typically takes from two to seven years. But CP14 doesn't have that much time. Because the project relies on Obama's power to grant clemency — and there's no guarantee his successor will embrace the project — all decisions have to be made before January 2017.

That stress was increased last July when one fertile source of volunteers was cut off. A memo from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts forbade federal public defenders from actively representing CP14 clients, though they may still do administrative work. And although there is increasing bipartisan support for sentencing reform, CP14 has drawn criticism from both the right and the left. Among other complaints, critics say the federal government shouldn't allow nongovernmental groups to be so heavily involved in making policy....

CP14 relies on the constitutional power to grant clemency — pardons, sentence commutations and other actions that ease the consequences of a conviction. Though Obama's past statements have suggested he's concerned about unduly harsh drug sentences, he's made little use of his clemency powers. That's the case in general for presidents serving from 1980 onward....

Submissions come after a lengthy review process. Normally, clemency seekers submit their petitions directly to the [Office of the Pardon Attorney] OPA (either pro se or by using one of the few lawyers who specialize in clemency). An OPA lawyer then scrutinizes the petition closely, typically calling the prosecutor's office and judge involved in the original case for an opinion. Once that work is done, the deputy attorney general (currently Sally Quillian Yates) examines it and sends it to the White House with the office's recommendations.

Though petitioners are still free to take that direct route, those going through CP14 get additional review. For those without [any] close relationship to a former attorney, the process started with a survey sent out last year by the Bureau of Prisons, asking whether the prisoner meets the DOJ's clemency criteria. As of early June, CP14 had received more than 30,000 of them. Any volunteer attorney who has completed CP14's training — a six-hour online course — may take up one of those surveys. Volunteers dig through old documents to investigate whether the prisoner really meets the criteria, then create an executive summary. That goes to a screening committee, whose job is to thoroughly double-check whether the case meets the DOJ's criteria.

If the case gets through that round, it goes to a CP14 steering committee, which is responsible for ensuring that each of the project's five partner organizations is comfortable signing off on the case. That's a lot of layers of approval, but Felman says organizers felt each was necessary because they all have different functions. If the case is approved, the volunteer attorney drafts the actual petition. The petition goes to the Office of the Pardon Attorney with a cover letter from CP14, saying the project organizers believe this prisoner meets the criteria. From there, it's out of CP14's hands.

"I'm not saying that that [letter] gives that petition any special weight over there," Felman explained at the midyear meeting. "Our hope is it gives them a little more confidence. But there's no question that they will put it through their regular, routine process."

If the OPA approves a case, it goes to the Office of the White House Counsel. From there, Felman says, CP14 doesn't know what happens. Several emails to the White House press office were unreturned. Clemency Project 2014 petitions began going to the OPA at the end of 2014. In March, the president issued the first four commutations with project involvement, as part of a group of 22 commutations. Though it's hard for CP14 to predict what the president might do, Felman says he's been told the White House would like to start approving cases on a quarterly or even rolling basis. He notes that the March commutations were issued at the end of the year's first quarter and says he would not be surprised to see more issued at the end of the second quarter. This would be another departure from modern presidents' standard practice of granting clemency at Christmas or the end of their terms.

Even when petitions are approved, it's not clear whether clemency recipients will be able to go home right away. No government representative has commented on the issue, but Felman says CP14 has assumed the president will shorten sentences to what they would have been if handed out today. But the March commutations didn't follow that formula; all but one recipient were slated for release at the same time, in July....

[T]he loss of the defenders exacerbated another problem: insufficient volunteers. The project has quite a lot already — about 1,500 as of early June — and is recruiting from large law firms and law school clinics. But with roughly 30,000 prisoner surveys to review — and the end of President Obama's term looming — CP14 needs more.

Another problem, which is endemic to old cases, involves getting the paperwork. Because the Justice Department requires petitioners to have served at least 10 years in prison, the cases are at least that old. That makes it tough to establish a prisoner's eligibility, especially if no former attorney can forward the case file. Many of the cases require an in-person trip to a courthouse because older documents are not on PACER. Even tougher to get are the presentence investigative reports, or PSRs, which are usually sealed. Felman said at the midyear meeting that a handful of judges have denied requests to unseal them; and in one case, a prosecutor opposed it....

[C]ritics of CP14 aren't just law-and-order advocates. In fact, the project has been criticized by some of the most ardent supporters of clemency. On the political right, one critic has been Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley.... Another conservative organization, the watchdog group Judicial Watch, has sued the DOJ under the Freedom of Information Act in an effort to get records of its communications with CP14 partner organizations. Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton says this is a rule of law issue. "There's this effort to abuse the clemency power of the president, to bypass Congress' sentencing laws," he claims. "The whole project by itself is an affront to the idea that the clemency power of the president is exercised on a case-by-case basis."...

Law professors Mark Osler of the University of St. Thomas (who runs a commutation clinic) and Rachel Barkow of New York University ... argued in a November Washington Post op-ed that the clemency process has far too many layers of bureaucracy and creates a conflict of interest because the Justice Department reviews convictions won by its own prosecutors. They called for a stand-alone, bipartisan agency like those used for clemency in many states.

Other critics from the left contend that the DOJ criteria leave too many prisoners out—particularly those who meet all criteria except the 10-year requirement. Felman says CP14 organizers pushed back a little on this issue, but to no avail.

Lots of prior related posts about Clemency Project 2014:

July 1, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Circa mid-2015, Clemency Project 2014 will go down as an abject failure if it does not submit more petitions before 2016

This notable new USA Today article, headlined "'The clock is running' on Obama clemency initiative," reports that the various administrative and practical difficulties encountered (and self-created?) by those trying to get Prez Obama more good clemency case are now seemingly at risk of completely "screwing the pooch" on the whole clemency push.  Here are the discouraging details:

The Obama administration is urging lawyers for federal inmates to move more quickly in filing petitions for presidential clemency, reminding them that "the clock is running" on the Obama presidency. The new urgency from the Justice Department comes more than a year into a program intended to shorten the sentences to federal inmates who would have gotten less time under current law.

That clemency initiative was coupled with the Clemency Project 2014, an outside consortium of lawyers working on those cases. But the Clemency Project filed only 31 petitions in its first year, leading to criticism from some proponents of criminal justice reform that the process is moving too slowly.

"If there is one message I want you to take away today, it's this: Sooner is better," U.S. Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff told volunteer lawyers in a video seminar last week. "Delaying is not helpful." Leff is the Justice Department official who provides recommendations on commutations and pardons to the president, who under the Constitution has the power to shorten sentences for federal crimes and to restore other civil rights....

The Clemency Project has set a goal of Jan. 20, 2016, for all petitions to be filed, to give the Obama administration a full year to consider them and send them to the president's desk for a decision before his term ends. Leff said any petitions that come in after that date could be left to Obama's successor. "So if we receive an enormous number of petitions at the last minute, yes, they will be reviewed. But a lot of them will not be reviewed during this administration," she said.

She also suggested that attorneys were spending too much time on cases. "While I greatly admire your legal skills, this is not the time to prepare a treatise of hundreds of pages," she told the lawyers.

Another problem is paperwork. The Office of the Pardon Attorney requires the pre-sentence report for every inmate, but that can involve a complicated process of court approval. "It's been a real bottleneck to get these documents into the hands of the lawyers," said James Felman, a Tampa attorney who chairs the criminal defense committee of the American Bar Association. So the Clemency Project has now streamlined that process, allowing the Bureau of Prisons to supply that document unless a judge objects.

Felman said lawyers also need to understand that they're asking the president for mercy, and so need to be forthright about the strengths and weaknesses of the case. "Aggressive lawyering is not necessarily going to pay off," he said. The cases don't have to be perfect. Felman said the Justice Department has signaled a willingness to consider cases that don't meet all of the criteria. "Some of the criteria are less definite than others. Like, for example, a clean record in prison. Nobody has a perfect record in prison," he said.

And the Justice Department said that even cases that aren't appropriate for the clemency initiative — which is intended for people who have already served at least 10 years — will still get consideration. "In addition to the president's clemency initiative, he continues to consider commutations under the traditional criteria for clemency," said Justice Department spokeswoman Dena Iverson. "Every applicant for clemency receives an individual review."

Margaret Love, a Washington attorney who had Leff's job in the Clinton administration, said she worries that an emphasis on the volume and speed of cases could compromise the ability of attorneys to make the best argument for their clients. "What I heard was hurry up, hurry up, deliver as many cases as quickly as you possibly can," she said. "If it's true that there were only 31 cases submitted by the project by the end of May, that's surprising given the number of lawyers they have working on them."

Regular readers know that, ever since Prez Obama and his Aministration started talking up an effort to get serious about using the clemency power seriously, I have been regularly expressing concerns about how structurally peculiar and procedurally belabored this new (and now not-so-new) clemency push has been. My particular worry, which is exacerbated by articles like this one and other similar reports, has been that a robust effort by defense lawyer groups to (1) review the complete files of, and (2) provide trained lawyers for, and (3) present a complete and extensive argument/application for, any and every federal prisoner who might want to pursue a clemency application could create a whole lot of costly and time-consuming busy work with few real substantive benefits. This is especially so given that, as all serious federal clemency advocates should know, the Pardon Attorney's Office has historically always taken its sweet time to assemble and review the files of any clemency application and will always (and justifiably) be wary of relying on just the information and representations made by a clemency applicant and is lawyer.

That all said, I remain hopeful that all the hard work being done by all the groups and lawyers involved in Clemency Project 2014 will prove meaningful and valuable and will ultimately enable Prez Obama to live up to his promises to get serious about using the clemency power seriously before he leave office in January 2017. But that might now require those working on Clemency Project 2014 to get serious about getting their applications submitted ASAP rather than continuing to spend time letting the perfect be the enemy of the good enough in this arena.

Some prior related posts:

June 25, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 15, 2015

Perspectives on Clemency Project 2014 from federal prisoners and an advocate for them

Regular readers know I have given lots of space recently to coverage and criticism of federal clemency efforts.  I am pleased to continue now with a guest post via Beth Curtis, a prisoner advocate who runs the website Life for Pot.  Beth sent this extended commentary my way under the heading "Inspired by the Dialogue between Margaret Colgate Love here and Mark Osler here on Douglas Berman’s Blog Sentencing Law and Policy":

At the launch of Clemency Project 2014 [CP-14], Craig Cesal, a non-violent marijuana offender on the Life for Pot site and his cell mate Samuel Edmonson a non-violent cocaine offender were both talking about and working on petitions for commutation.  Both Craig and Samuel had sentences of life without parole and had nothing to lose.

The two cell mates had a discussion about whether or not they should file their own petitions just in case there were going to be commutations before attorneys from The Clemency Project 2014 could prepare one for them.  Craig argued that the project had said there was no reason for filing on your own, as the criteria was different and it would probably have to be done again.  Samuel on the other hand decided that he should be sure he had a petition in the Pardon Attorney’s office and in February of 2014, he filed a brief petition for commutation that he did himself.

Very early in the process both of these offenders were assigned pro bono attorneys from the same law firm.  Samuel and Craig had initial contacts with their pro bono attorneys, but after that contact they were not contacted again and did not know if any work was being done.  

In March of 2015 Samuel received a commutation for his life sentence from President Barack Obama based on the petition he filed himself.

We were interested in this because there were only three life for pot inmates that we knew of who had been assigned pro bono attorneys and they only had initial contacts.  We contacted inmates and suggested that they begin preparing their own Clemency Petitions and file them, we don’t know if CP-14 will be able to overcome the cumbersome procedure.

In March of 2015 Larry Duke, a 68 year old non-violent marijuana offender with a sentence of life without parole was released.  Larry’s immediate release was pursuant to 18 USC 3582(c)(1)(A)(i).  The “extraordinary and compelling reasons” for the release was Larry’s status as an elderly inmate.  Although Larry is over 65 he is also the healthiest of those on the Life for Pot site.  Larry had a contact from a pro bono attorney through Clemency Project 2014.  We called his attorney who did not know he had been released.

We started getting questions about the process for Reduction in Sentence [RIS] from non-violent marijuana offenders.  They wanted to know if they should file for sentencing relief even though they had filled out a survey to request an attorney through Clemency Project 2014.

These are not legal questions, but questions about procedure and we sought answers from an attorney with CP–14.  It was their considered opinion that the elder inmates should not file for RIS until CP–14 had completed the process as clemency might be held up until the (CR/RIS) was resolved.

Inmates found that BOP facilities were not aware of the elderly, over the age of 65, criteria for applying for RIS.  This remedy has seldom been used and “extraordinary and compelling reasons” were interpreted by the BOP as being almost lifeless chained to a hospital bed.

How much hope should we have for this process?  Was Larry Duke’s release singular, or will this be the beginning of an accelerated process?  We would like to know.

The hope and promise of Clemency Project 2014 is like a breath of air for these nonviolent inmates who will be behind bars till they die if no one exercises compassion, mercy and justice.  We’re listening carefully to the dialogue between Mark Osler and Margaret Love about the hope and promise for relief.

We are in the 18th month since the launch of the project and yet only two inmates have been released through this apparently clogged tunnel to freedom.  Much has been written in support of clemency and its use to address serious facility overcrowding and sentencing disparity.  Information about progress is scant and prisoners, their families and advocates worry about the progress and the will of the Administration.

Lately these public discussions by well-known clemency advocates pondering the most effective way to deal with the over incarceration gives us hope.  Margaret Colgate Love and Mark Osler’s point counter point about it on the blog Sentencing Law and Policy by Douglas Berman gave us insight. I believe these discussions are helpful but not a substitute for more transparency and concrete information given to the inmates, their families and advocates about procedure and progress.  We need to respect these vulnerable non-violent citizens.

It would be an insensitive travesty if this program that was announced with such fanfare and gave such hope to thousands of inmates, their family and friends and advocacy groups did not fulfill the promise of compassion and mercy.  These non-violent incarcerated people are accustomed to broken promises, but this one can be easily fulfilled by a bold administration with the courage of their stated convictions.  For years, nonviolent inmate advocates have felt that bi-partisan support would be the key to this realignment of positions and lead to fiscal responsibility and compassion.  Bipartisan support has arrived and we have the promise, it just needs to be fulfilled.

Some prior related posts:

June 15, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (9)

Friday, June 05, 2015

Former Pardon Attorney: "A Modest Proposal to Expedite the Administration's Clemency Initiative"

Love_margaret_02_crop2_MA31053191-0003Regular readers know I have given lots of space this week to coverage and criticism of federal clemency efforts.  I am pleased to continue now with a guest post via former Pardon Attorney Margaret Love, which she sent my way under the title "A Modest Proposal to Expedite the Administration's Clemency Initiative":

Mark Osler’s post in this space on June 4 ("Another View on Clemency Project 2014") recounts his unsuccessful efforts several years ago to persuade the Administration to establish a presidential commission, similar to the one that handled cases of Vietnam draft evaders and deserters during the Ford Administration, to review and recommend clemency relief for the thousands of prisoners serving prison sentences imposed more than a decade ago that are now generally considered far too severe.  He suggests that the reason the Administration chose not to follow this path relates to its doubt that Congress would fund such an effort. Instead, the Justice Department chose to address the problem of excessive sentences by asking a consortium of private organizations to manage it through the volunteer efforts of the private bar.

We will never know whether Professor Osler’s commission idea would have worked, or whether lack of funding was the reason it was rejected.  But it does appear that the structure put in place instead to manage the Administration's clemency initiative has (in his words) “struggled with the overwhelming number of cases (over 30,000) referred to it.”

It did not help that the Administrative Office for U.S. Courts sharply limited the role that Federal Public Defender Organizations could play in the clemency initiative, by declaring that CJA funds could not be spent on clemency representations.  Many, including myself, believe that the sentencing expertise and advocacy of the Federal Defenders is critical to implementing the sort of large scale program of sentence reduction the Administration evidently had in mind.

But there is another approach that might have been taken by the Administration that would have ensured a central role for the Federal Defenders.  This approach, which might still be taken, would make extraordinary sentence reduction the responsibility of the federal courts as well as of the President.  Bringing cases back to court would not require new legislation or new funds, since there is already on the books a judicial sentence reduction authority that could achieve the same result as executive clemency, through court proceedings where CJA appointments are clearly authorized.  And, because a large scale sentence reduction program is already underway in the federal courts, economies of scale are possible.

Specifically, 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i) provides that a court may at any time reduce a sentence upon motion of the Bureau of Prisons for “extraordinary and compelling reasons.” The Sentencing Commission is authorized under 28 U.S.C. § 994(t) to establish policy for courts considering BOP motions under § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i), which it has done under USSG ¶ 1B1.13.  Under this policy guideline, “extraordinary and compelling reasons” that may justify sentence reduction include terminal illness, a physical or medical condition that diminishes a person’s ability to provide self-care in a prison environment, the death or incapacitation of a child’s only caregiver, and any other reason that may be determined to be “extraordinary and compelling” by the Director of BOP. It is noteworthy that several of the organizations represented on the Clemency Project 2014 steering committee are on record with the Sentencing Commission as favoring a more expansive menu of “extraordinary and compelling reasons” warranting sentence reduction, including one that now seems prescient: “the defendant would have received a significantly lower sentence under a subsequent change in applicable law that has not been made retroactive.”

Less than two years ago BOP issued a new policy statement with a list of circumstances in which it may seek a sentence reduction, a list that is evidently not intended to be exhaustive. See Program Statement 5050.46, as amended (August 12, 2013).  Accordingly, there is no reason why BOP could not determine, with or without an amendment to ¶ 1B1.13, that “extraordinary and compelling reasons” exist in any case meeting the criteria set forth by the Deputy Attorney General as warranting a grant of clemency. The coincidence of the standards in the two contexts would be particularly fitting in light of the fact that the judicial sentence reduction authority in § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i) was originally enacted in 1976, at the Justice Department’s instance, to expedite sentence reductions that previously had required a clemency application to be submitted to the President through the Office of the Pardon Attorney.

There are in addition other reasons why it would be appropriate to supplement the clemency initiative with a statutory sentence reduction initiative implemented through the courts, including a general preference for a judicial decision-maker under federal sentencing law and policy, and for a congressionally authorized approach over an extra-legal use of executive power. Most scholars agree that clemency ought always to be a second choice where the law provides a remedy for sentencing unfairness or undue severity, as it does in this case.  See, e.g., Daniel J. Freed & Steven L. Chanenson, Pardon Power and Sentencing Policy, 13 Fed. Sent. Rptr. 119, 124 (2001) (“Wherever a rule can be structured to guide the discretion of judges or administrative agencies in determining – with reasons – whether to mitigate the sentences of similarly situated offenders, we think such a system should ordinarily be accorded priority over one that relies exclusively upon the unstructured, unexplained discretion of a president to grant or deny individual pardons or commutations.”)

Traditionally, the Federal Defenders have played a central role in proceedings involving judicial consideration of sentence reduction under § 3582(c)(2) where guideline ranges have been lowered, even though there is no constitutional right to counsel in such proceedings.  They are key players in the massive effort to reduce sentences now underway under the so-called “Drugs Minus Two” guidelines amendment. There is no reason why the Defenders should not play a similar role in judicial sentence reduction proceedings under § 3582(c)(1).  There does not appear to be any relevant difference between the two types of proceedings as far as the discretionary appointment power in 18 U.S.C. § 3006A(a)(2) is concerned. In the interests of judicial economy, these proceedings might even be combined.

All it would take to make this happen would be a resolve on the part of the Department of Justice to use this statute for the purpose it was originally intended.

Augmenting the Administration’s sentence reduction program through broader use of a judicial sentence reduction mechanism, which the Justice Department’s own Inspector General has repeatedly criticized as underutilized (most recently for aging prisoners), would accomplish the Administration’s goals in reducing unduly severe sentences, while at the same time regularizing sentence reduction through the courts pursuant to statute.  It would put sentence reduction on a sounder long-term footing that is more consistent with the principles of determinate sentencing, be more predictable and accountable as a practical matter, and respond to any concerns about the unaccountable use of executive power.

Many years ago, when I was serving as Pardon Attorney, then-Deputy Attorney General Philip Heymann asked me why we should ask the President to commute the sentence of an elderly prisoner when (he said) "we can do the job ourselves."  Now I would ask the new DAG the same question.

Some prior related posts:

June 5, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Professor Mark Osler's informed perspective on recent federal clemency developments

09fbbcfProfessor Mark Osler is rightly considered one of the most informed and effective sentencing reform advocates, especially in the arena of clemency.  Thus I was very pleased when he wrote to me as a follow-up to my recent posts about recent federal clemency developments and provided some lengthy reflections he has titled "Another View of Clemency Project 2014."  Here are Mark's informed and important insights: 

In the fall of 2012, I gathered together four students, a passel of handwritten letters pleading for help, and a bunch of Margaret Colgate Love articles and created the nation's first clinic focused on federal commutations. The project has turned out to be wonderful as a teaching model; my students get to learn the core legal skill of building a narrative and advocating for a client in a process relatively free of procedural snares. It also has propelled me into the simmering debate over the Obama administration's clemency policy.

Of course, for most of the Obama presidency it wouldn't be very accurate to call the way clemency was handled as a "policy." For the most part, it appears, they simply lopped over the failed guidelines and rules of his predecessor rather than work to revive this key Constitutional power. This failure represents a troubling lack of focus in a president who (1) has properly decried the disparate incarceration of black men through the War on Drugs, and (2) came to politics as a Constitutional Law professor.

At the same time I was starting my clemency clinic, I also began to advocate for a vigorous, short-term project to use the pardon power to help those prisoners serving long sentences under mandatory minimums and sentencing guidelines on crack cocaine that were amended in 2010, but not made retroactive. With Nkechi Taifa and others, I met four times with administration officials and urged them to follow the example of President Ford, who granted clemency to nearly 15,000 Vietnam-era draft evaders and deserters in just one year. Ford did this by convening a special commission outside of the Justice Department, and that commission left behind a remarkable report full of good advice. I even left a copy of the Ford Presidential Clemency Commission Report with those Obama advisors after a meeting in the Vice President's imposing office in the Eisenhower Building.

The Obama administration did not take our advice, but they did announce a very different short-term commutation initiative -- the Clemency Project 2014, which put in the hands of five non-profit groups the shepherding of worthwhile cases towards clemency. My hunch -- and it is only a hunch -- is that this course was chosen because the administration did not think that it could get the money needed to fund a Ford-style Clemency Board through the House of Representatives. The recent Marino Amendment (which seeks to bar the use of funds for the Clemency Project 2014 or for augmenting the Pardon Attorney's office) passed by the House on June 3rd shows that there was a sound basis for that fear.

As has been well-documented, the Clemency Project 2014 has struggled with the overwhelming number of cases (over 30,000) referred to it. If there is blame in that, I should share it. Though I am not affiliated with any of the five groups in charge, I have taken an active role in training pro bono lawyers for Clemency Project 2014, have tried to rally other law schools to the cause, and have taken on several cases myself. Obviously, the structure of this project is not the one I proposed, but it is the one that we have, and through the end of the Obama administration probably represents the best chance for a historic use of the pardon power by this President. It is unlikely that this administration will suddenly — in the next year and a half — repair its relationship with the House to the point where new funding for clemency reform can be found. The toxic dynamic that probably skunked my proposal is still at work.

Professor Berman has suggested that wealthy clemency proponents like the Kochs could go far in re-making the process if they were to invest their money in reform. I think he is right. There are two areas where those resources could be used efficiently. The first is by investing in the debate over who should be the next president. Sadly, we only talk about clemency in the political realm when it goes wrong (i.e. in the last days of Bill Clinton's presidency or Haley Barbour's governorship). We should be actively asking candidates what they would do with clemency when they are running for office, and urging them towards reform. Rachel Barkow and I have, for example, argued that the next administration should shift permanently to a process centered on a review board outside of the Department of Justice, and others have promoted similar ideas. The "Supernova Federal Clemency Institute" research group Professor Berman proposes is worthwhile — but probably most worthwhile (especially with Koch backing) if it is focused on the 2016 election and the first days of a new presidency.

Beyond that advocacy, it would be wise to devote private-funding resources to the Clemency Project 2014 itself, in two ways. First, the project has a devoted and talented but threadbare staff, and that has a cost. There are few resources available to CP14 to screen cases before sending them out to lawyers, for example, and that is a problem that can be solved with money and more bodies. Second, it would help to have full-time lawyers working as advocates on these cases as specialists, as they would be much more efficient than the pro-bono generalists who often have to learn federal sentencing law from scratch. In collaboration with NYU's Center on the Administration of Criminal Law and others, I am working to do exactly that. The more money we raise, the more lawyers can be hired. But... it has to happen fast. The window is closing, and the election season is already upon us.

Some prior related posts:

June 4, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Might Charles Koch put big money behind big reform of federal clemency process?

Post - March 2013 (5)The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new USA Today article headlined "Koch urges Obama administration to speed up clemency program." Here are excerpts:

Billionaire industrialist Charles Koch and top officials in his company are calling for the Obama administration to release from prison the thousands of non-violent offenders who qualify for clemency under a Justice Department initiative.  The push to shorten long federal sentences, mostly for drug offenses, has had a sluggish start since it was announced in April 2014. President Obama has commuted the sentences of only a few dozen inmates since the program took effect.

"I'm not faulting the administration," Mark Holden, Koch Industries' senior vice president and general counsel told USA TODAY on Monday. But, he said, "people got their hopes up. Why isn't it going any faster?"

Koch Industries officials did not offer a specific policy changes but hope their statement of unequivocal support for the clemency initiative will focus attention on the program. "When Charles says something … it helps to highlight the issue and bring other like-minded people to the table," Holden said.

Charles Koch, whose multibillion-dollar industrial conglomerate is one of the nation's largest private companies, has an outsize influence in Republican politics. His expansive network plans to spend about $900 million ahead of 2016 elections — about $300 million of which will be spent on electoral politics, he said. Koch also recently told USA TODAY that he might financially support up to five Republican presidential contenders in next year's primary: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida.

"We're going to be supportive of those candidates who are supportive of the issues that are important to us," Holden said Monday, when asked what role the clemency issue might play in the 2016 race. Criminal-justice reform, he said, is a key part of Koch's "freedom framework." Holden noted that Paul and Cruz have pushed for changes to the system. Both have signed on to a Senate bill that would cut mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses....

Lawyers involved in the clemency initiative say the process has been slowed, in part, because the eligibility standards may be too tough for the inmates to meet. The main targets of the program are drug offenders who were sentenced under a strict crack-cocaine law that was eased by Congress in 2010. To be eligible, inmates must be non-violent offenders who already have served 10 years and would have received shorter prison terms had they been sentenced under today's laws. They also must have a record of good conduct in prison and no significant criminal history....

More than 30,000 federal inmates applied for representation through the Clemency Project 2014, a consortium of legal organizations, including the American Bar Association and The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, that are helping eligible inmates seek commutations.

Justice Department officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday but have said they are likely to recommend more commutations to the White House. The administration also has requested a 66% budget increase for the Justice Department's Office of Pardon Attorney, which reviews the clemency requests.

Holden and Koch Industries spokeswoman Melissa Cohlmia said company officials decided to publicly support the clemency initiative and call for the faster release of inmates after receiving requests both from organizations and individual inmates, seeking Koch support for clemency applications. In a statement, Holden said Koch and the company back both the program and the Obama administration's eligibility criteria. He said the company also would like to see Congress revise more laws to cut prison time for inmates who would have received shorter terms had they been sentenced today.

"Until there is a change in that legal process, we believe that everyone who meets the common-sense criteria set by the Department of Justice should be granted clemency," Holden said in the statement. "We do not believe that keeping these individuals in prison under these circumstances is just nor does it enhance public safety."

I am always pleased to see prominent folks like the Koch brothers, and others who talk prominently about the importance and virtues of freedom, bringing their message to the criminal justice arena and pushing for reforms. I am especially pleased to see Koch Industries prominently "throwing its weight around" in support of more federal clemency grants ASAP. That all said, though, I would really like to see the Koch brothers start prominently throwing some money around to engineer systemic changes to clemency procedures and politics.

Together, the Koch brothers are estimated to be worth $80 billion; a high-profile investment of just, say, .01% of these riches spent on creating and staffing what I might call a "Supernova Federal Clemency Institute" could and would go a long way to transforming the modern clemency conversation.  I am branding this suggested clemency effort on the kind of stellar explosion that briefly outshines an entire galaxy, radiating as much energy as possible before burning out: a "Supernova Federal Clemency Institute," especially if funded by just .01% of the Koch fortune ($8 million), would explode on the clemency scene and could burn very bright for the final 18 months of the Obama presidency.

With $8 million in resources (and perhaps more coming from others committed to personal freedom in the United States), the "Supernova Federal Clemency Institute" could hire and effectively compensate a staff of lawyers, researchers and advocates who surely could produce, perhaps in a matter of weeks, a robust list of meritorious federal clemency candidates.  This imagined "Supernova Federal Clemency Institute" also could work on rentry project for those granted clemency, could produce reports on best-practices in the states, and could make recommendations to the President and to Congress about how best to ensure federal and state clemency procedures are enduringly committed to helping "secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."  

June 2, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, June 01, 2015

Has the approach and administration of Clemency Project 2014 actually made the federal clemency process worse?

Download (10)The depressing question in the title of this post is prompted by this depressing new USA Today article headlined "Obama administration clemency push gets slow start."  I have long tried to avoid being too pessimistic about what has been unfolding on the federal clemency front over the last 18 months, in part because I sincerely believed it would be nearly impossible to make the modern federal clemency process and products even worse. But this USA Today piece has me fearing that my own pessimistic instincts perhaps should now turn even darker (based on the statements and data points I have highlighted below):

A Justice Department push to shorten long drug sentences through President Obama's clemency powers has gotten off to a slow start: Obama has commuted the sentences of just two of the tens of thousands of federal inmates who have applied through the program.  Lawyers involved in the effort say the year-old clemency initiative has been hampered by the complexity of the cases and questions about the eligibility criteria, which may still be too strict to help most of the prison population.

The result is a system that appears even more backlogged than it was before the initiative began.  "The criteria basically suggest that a whole bunch of good citizens who committed one little mistake got significantly more than 10 years in prison, and fortunately that's pretty rare," said Johanna Markind, a former attorney-adviser in the Office of Pardon Attorney who left in March.  "I think they've kind of belatedly realized that people are doing their jobs, and those perfect cases they think are there don't really exist," she said.  "For all the sound and fury about the commutations, the clemency initiative has only come up with a handful of cases that fit" the criteria.

The clemency initiative was intended to help federal inmates who would have received shorter prison terms had they been sentenced today.  That applies mostly to drug offenders after Congress shortened sentences for crack cocaine in 2010.  To be eligible, inmates must have already served 10 years of their sentence.

Last year, a record 6,561 federal prisoners — three times the usual number — filed petitions with the Justice Department's Office of Pardon Attorney, which advises the president on all requests for clemency.  Under the constitution, the president has the absolute power to grant pardons and commute sentences.

More than 30,000 federal inmates applied for representation through the Clemency Project 2014, a consortium of lawyers who have volunteered to help eligible inmates through the often complicated and time-consuming process of seeking a commutation. But 13 months later, those lawyers have submitted just 31 petitions. And while Obama has used his pardon power to shorten the sentences of 43, most of those cases predate the clemency initiative.  Over six years, Obama has granted just 0.2% of the commutation petitions submitted.

The Justice Department says it expects to recommend more commutations to Obama as it reviews the petitions.  But that could take a while: In its 2016 budget request to Congress, the department said the deluge of clemency applications is too much for the current staff to manage.  "As OPA's existing staff has discovered, expending the substantial resources required simply to manage such a volume of clemency requests significantly decreases those available for analyzing and evaluating the merits of individual applications and preparing the appropriate letters of advice to inform the president," the Justice Department said in its congressional budget justification.

Obama has proposed a 66% budget increase for the Office of Pardon Attorney in 2016, and is seeking twice as many lawyers to process all the paperwork.  And that paperwork can be daunting, requiring an examination of trial transcripts, the pre-sentence report (which is often sealed) and Bureau of Prisons files.

To be eligible under the program, inmates must be low-level offenders with no ties to gangs or cartels.  They must have demonstrated good conduct in prison, have no significant criminal history and no history of violence.  "There are gray areas, What is 'demonstrated good conduct in prison,' for example? Is that a pristine record?" said Cynthia Roseberry, a career public defender who now manages the Clemency Project 2014.


Without knowing how the Obama administration will apply those vague criteria, it's impossible to know how many could be eligible.  "My hope is that thousands of those will meet the criteria, but I just can't speculate." Roseberry said.  She said she expects the numbers to increase as the Clemency Project continues to screen for likely candidates for commutation.  A Clemency Project screening committee has already notified more than 3,000 inmates it won't be accepting their cases.  Once a case is accepted, it's parceled out to a volunteer attorney such as Mary Davis.

Davis represents Byron McDade, a Washington man sentenced to 27 years for cocaine trafficking even as his co-conspirators — who testified against him — got no more than seven. In 2009, after McDade had served his first seven years, the judge who sentenced him urged Obama to commute his sentence.  "While the Court is powerless to reduce the sentence it was required by then-existing law to impose, the president is not," U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman wrote in another opinion last year,

So Davis assembled a 168-page petition with the help of two West Virginia University law students — Laura Hoffman and Amanda Camplesi — who spent a combined 122 hours on the case, collecting paperwork and visiting McDade at a federal prison in Pennsylvania. Davis said the work was complicated, even as a veteran federal defense attorney specializing in sentencing appeals.  "I know there were attorneys signing up for this who don't do criminal defense work, and I would think it would be extremely difficult," she said.

McDade is an unusual case: Before being convicted in 2002, his only offense was a minor misdemeanor with a $10 fine.  Markind, who worked on commutation cases as a Justice Department lawyer, said the clemency initiative did not relax Obama's "three strikes" policy making anyone with three or more criminal convictions ineligible for clemency. "Criminals with a record do not make the most appealing poster children," she said....

Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis and a former prosecutor ... said the clemency process is already too bureaucratic and too distant from the ultimate decision-maker: the president.  The Clemency Project hopes to cut through the process by helping to provide the Justice Department with better, more complete case files to review.  But that solution has also led to criticism from Capitol Hill, where Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, says that the administration is outsourcing a government responsibility.

"We've failed the same way through different kinds of administrations, and the problem isn't the administration, it's the process," Osler said. "The sad thing is, every president recently has gotten to the end of their term and said, 'Hey, where are all the good clemency cases?' I sure hope that will change, but it's going to be a furious last year as these things start to come in even greater numbers."

It is hard to fault, and I am very disinclined to criticize excessively, all of the well-meaning and dedicated lawyers and administrators operating now in a system taking on Rube-Goldberg-quality with seemingly too many elements, criteria and moving parts.  Still, by now having so many more people applying for clemency, along with so many more lawyers trying to figure out the meaning and importance of so many vague criteria, it is not surprising that the clemency push/project has been most successful in producing a lot more paperwork and so many more questions about what this system is seeking to achieve.

I have long believed that President Obama could and should create an independent commission or task force or working group that would be tasked with making federal clemency reform a priority in a very short period of time.  Notably, as highlighted here, such a proactive approach to policing reform achieved a whole lot in just a matter of months:

On December 18, 2014, President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order establishing the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing.  The Task Force Members sought expertise from stakeholders and input from the public as they worked to identify best practices and make recommendations to the President.  The Task Force submitted an initial report to the President on March 2, 2015 and released the final report on May 18, 2015.

Especially in light of all the new troubles and costs that the current approach is generating, I would urge the President to sign an Executive Order ASAP establishing the President's Task Force on 21st Century Clemency.  The Task Force Members could seek expertise from stakeholders and input from the public as they worked to identify best clemency practices and make recommendations to the President no later than December 1, 2015. That would still give Prez Obama a full year to implement an improved clemency process and would leave truly helpful legacy and structure in place from whomever becomes his successor.

Some prior related posts:

June 1, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Notable sentencing and clemency comments from newly-confirmed Deputy Attorney General

I just came across this recent Washington Post profile of Sally Quillian Yates, the new number two at the Department of Justice.  The piece is headlined "New deputy attorney general: ‘We’re not the Department of Prosecutions’," and here are some notable excerpts:

The odds were stacked against lawyer Sally Quillian in her first trial in rural Barrow County, Ga. Before an all-white jury, she was representing the county’s first African American landowning family against a developer over a disputed title to six acres of land. The family was so distrustful of the court system back in the 1930s that they hadn’t recorded their deed.  Instead, the family’s matriarch kept the deed, written on cloth, folded inside her dress every day while she worked the fields.  Now, a developer was trying to take their property, and Quillian was arguing the case using an arcane legal theory.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” Quillian — now Sally Quillian Yates — recalled. “I had never tried a case before.”  But the jury came back with a verdict in favor of her client. “These 12 white jurors, who knew and went to church with and socialized with everybody on the other side, did the right thing,” said Yates, who was then at a private firm.  “This court system that my client’s family had mistrusted so much that they wouldn’t even file their deed had worked for them as it’s supposed to and had given them back the property that had been so important to their family all of these years.”

That case some 30 years ago had a deep impact on Yates, who went on to become a prosecutor in Atlanta for 20 years.  In 2010, President Obama nominated Yates to be the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia.  Last week, she was confirmed to be deputy attorney general , the second-highest-ranking position at the Justice Department.  A bottle of champagne still sits in her fourth-floor corner office, which overlooks Constitution Avenue and where senior officials celebrated her ­84-to-12 Senate vote....

One of Yates’s priorities will be to follow through with the criminal justice reform efforts begun by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., including the push to give clemency to “nonviolent drug ­offenders” who meet certain criteria set out by the department last year, she said in her first interview since taking the job.

Yates and other prosecutors enforced the harsh sentencing policies from the 1980s and ’90s.  “Those policies were enacted at a time of an exploding violent-crime rate and serious crack problems,” Yates said.  “They were based on the environment we were in. But things have changed now, and violent crime rates have dropped dramatically.”

More than 35,000 inmates are seeking clemency, but a complicated review process has slowed the Obama administration’s initiative.  In February, Obama commuted the sentences of 22 drug offenders, the largest batch of prisoners to be granted early release under his administration and the first group of inmates who applied after the new criteria were set.

“Certainly, there’s some growing pains at the beginning,” Yates said.  “There’s start-up time involved in this. I think all of us are frustrated that it’s taken longer than we would like for this to be operating as efficiently as possible.  But I think we are headed down that road now. There are going to be more recommendations from the department, and I would expect more commutations that the president will be issuing.”...

Yates commutes every other weekend to Atlanta to be with her husband, who is the director of a school for children with learning disabilities, and to plan the wedding of her 24-year-old daughter, the older of two children.  She said the back-and-forth is worth the opportunity to influence criminal justice issues, including civil rights and sentencing reform, at the highest level.

She plans to urge lawmakers on Capitol Hill to pass legislation to change sentencing policies. “Certainly, I don’t think I can ever be accused of being soft on crime,” Yates said. “But we need to be using the limited resources we have to ensure that we are truly doing justice and that the sentences we’re meting out are just and proportional to the crimes that we’re charging.”

“We’re not the Department of Prosecutions or even the Department of Public Safety,” Yates said. “We are the Department of Justice.”

May 19, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Considering clemency for federal marijuana offenders and other posts of note at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

This new post about a new commentary headlined "Do marijuana prisoners deserve amnesty?" reminded me that I have not recently done in this space a round-up of posts of note from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.  Here is an abridged list of April MLP&R posts that might be of special interest to sentencing fans:

May 2, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, April 10, 2015

Highlighting and assailing Prez Obama's "weak approach to pardons" and Clemency Project 2014

Today's Washington Post has this potent new commentary authored by George Lardner Jr. and P.S. Ruckman Jr. headlined "Obama’s weak approach to pardons." Here are extended excerpts:

When it comes to the pardon power, President Obama is still more talk than action. According to the most recent Justice Department data, he has granted only one pardon for every 29 petitions that have come before him, fewer than any of the past seven presidents.  Last week, he signed 22 commutations, but his record on those is even more dismal because he has such a staggering backlog, the biggest of any president in U.S. history.  It is a backlog that he and his administration invited.

But you wouldn’t know that from his rhetoric.  In a recent interview with Buzzfeed, the president said, “We’ve revamped the pardoning office in the Justice Department because, traditionally, we weren’t reaching a lot of nonviolent offenders who, if they received a pardon, perhaps would be in a better position to get employed.”...  What he didn’t say is that he has let those applications pile higher and higher.

The Justice Department named a new pardon attorney in November, and her overburdened office now has more lawyers than before — but if that was the “revamping,” it has yet to produce significant results.  Despite receiving unprecedented numbers of petitions, Obama has granted only 64 pardons and 43 commutations.  Only six other presidents have been less merciful, and most of those served a single term or less.

Without counting a program called Clemency Project 2014, which makes his record worse, Obama has granted just one of every 779 commutation petitions addressed to him.  Every president since Richard Nixon (who approved one of every 15 commutation petitions) did better....

Obama’s “new approach” to pardons remains just a promise.  More than a year ago, the Justice Department announced that Clemency Project 2014 would aim to find federal prisoners who deserved a commutation, which reduces the severity of a sentence.  But pardons, which forgive applicants for their crimes and restore their civil rights, were excluded.

This drive for more commutations has become a disaster, notwithstanding last week’s action.  When the project was announced in early 2014, then-Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole asked the legal profession for help in composing “effective and appropriate” petitions for inmates serving harsher sentences than they would have received “if convicted of precisely the same offenses today.”  Since then, The Post reports, more than 35,000 inmates — some 16 percent of the federal prison population — have asked for commutations under the initiative. And since then, Obama has commuted just 34 sentences.

More than 1,000 lawyers at more than 300 law firms have offered to participate in Clemency Project 2014. Yet little more than 5,000 of the 35,000 applications have been assigned to a lawyer....

The unduly restrictive rules spelled out by Cole last spring are an even larger problem. It should not be too difficult for prisoners to show they got a stiffer sentence than they would have received today, but that’s not enough.  Under the criteria, a prisoner must have served at least 10 years, have no significant criminal history and have had no involvement with gangs, cartels or organized crime.  The program also penalizes prisoners who previously asked for commutations by placing Clemency Project 2014 petitioners in line ahead of them.

Just as troublesome is the fact that the critical decisions about whether the rules have been met have been farmed out to private organizations — the ACLU, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Bar Association and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.  These are fine groups, but the pardon power is supposed to be reserved for the president, and saying no, which these private agencies can do, is as much an exercise of that power as saying yes.

To Obama’s credit, he wrote a letter to the 22 inmates whose sentences he commuted. All of them had been convicted of nonviolent drug offenses, in many cases under punitive rules no longer in effect.  But there must be hundreds if not thousands more who are just as qualified. It was a nice try by the White House to say last week that Obama’s commutation record was now better, numerically, than George W. Bush’s. What it didn’t say was that Bush’s record on commutations (11) was one of the worst in history and that he granted almost three times as many pardons as Obama has (188 to 64).

President Obama keeps referring to the Justice Department as though it were in charge of the process while he remains a frustrated bystander.  He conceded in South Carolina that “we have a pretty strict set of criteria” for grants of clemency, but he spoke as though he was handcuffed by those criteria (when, in fact, he isn’t).  Criticisms of the pardon process usually focus on the prosecutorial mindset of officials at Justice and blame them for rejecting too many deserving applications.  It’s time for the president to take the heat and stop letting Justice be the scapegoat.

April 10, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

More reflections on Prez Obama's recent commutations

Writing in Forbes, Jacob Sullum has this new commentary about last week's notable clemency news headlined "Obama Steps Up Commutations, Feeding Drug War Prisoners' Hopes."  Here are excerpts: 

Obama’s latest batch of commutations, which doubled his total in a single day, suggests that the president, whose clemency record during his first term was remarkably stingy, is beginning to make up for lost time. Last year the Justice Department signaled a new openness to clemency petitions, laying out criteria for the sort of applications the president wanted to see. An unnamed “senior administration official” told Yahoo News the new guidelines could result in commutations for “hundreds, perhaps thousands” of federal prisoners by the end of Obama’s second term. The president will have to pick up the pace to reach that goal. But his avowed interest in ameliorating the egregious injustices inflicted by federal drug laws seems to be more than rhetorical.

Most of the drug offenders whose sentences Obama has shortened so far, including 13 of the 22 prisoners whose petitions he granted on Tuesday, were convicted of crack cocaine offenses. There is a good reason for that: Crack sentences are especially harsh, and although Congress reduced them in 2010, it did not make the changes retroactive. That means thousands of crack offenders are still serving terms that almost everyone now agrees are too long.

The Smarter Sentencing Act, which was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last year but never got a floor vote, would address that problem by making the 2010 changes retroactive. The bill was reintroduced in February, but its prospects are uncertain. In the meantime, Obama has the power to bring crack sentences in line with what the law currently deems appropriate.

With an estimated 8,800 prisoners who could benefit from retroactive application of shorter crack sentences, there is plenty of room for more acts of mercy like these. But the conventional wisdom is that commutations cannot help more than a tiny percentage of those prisoners. “While Mr. Obama has pledged to make greater use of his clemency power,” The New York Times reported on Tuesday, “the White House is unlikely to make a sizable dent in the prison population. Thousands of prisoners are serving time for drug sentences under the old, stricter rules.”

It’s true that commuting thousands of sentences, as that anonymous administration official quoted by Yahoo News envisioned, would be historically unprecedented. Yet it is clearly within the president’s constitutional authority, and there is less need for a careful, case-by-case weighing of each applicant’s merits when there is already a consensus that the mandatory minimums imposed on crack offenders between 1986 and 2010 were inappropriately harsh.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Despite the concerns he expressed about our excessively punitive criminal justice system while running for president, Obama issued a grand total of one commutation during his first four years in office and finished his first term with a good shot at leaving behind one of the worst clemency records in U.S. history.

Prior related posts:

April 7, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

"For principle to be served, 22 worthy, long-term narcotics prisoners granted release needs to become 2,200 or more."

The title of this post is a provocative line from this commentary piece by Mark Osler in reaction to President Obama's grants of clemency yesterday (basics here).   Here are more of his sentiments:

In one day, Obama commuted almost as many sentences as Reagan and George W. Bush did in 16 years.

What we are glimpsing like a gorilla in the mist might be something so rare it has not been spotted in four decades: the principled use of the pardon power in a systemic way to address injustice.  It could even be the reclaiming of a core Constitutional imperative that was squandered by President Clinton in his last days in office, and largely ignored by President Reagan and both Bushes.  Or maybe not; it all depends on what comes next....

The president has most of the work ahead of him if he is really to reclaim the pardon power from its long period of disrepute.  Tuesday’s 22 men and women are largely symbolic, representing the thousands like them who remain in prison.

Perhaps most importantly, the president should reform the pardon process so that it doesn’t need special initiatives like the Clemency Project 2014.  Like Presidents Bush and Clinton before him, Obama complained of not getting good cases.  The problem is the system that delivers those cases to his desk, which winds its way through the Department of Justice and the White House, navigating as many as seven levels of review....

[M]any of the most efficient [state] systems use a clemency board to make recommendations directly to the executive.  Establishing such a board cuts the levels of review down to just a few and opens up other opportunities.  For example, such a board could compile and analyze data on those released and their success, providing guidance for future cases.

The fact that 22 clemencies is historic says more about the state of federal clemency than it does about this toe-in-the-water action, given that there are over 200,000 people in federal prisons across the United States.  At best, it is a symbolic gesture, and the coming reality will be good for the prisoners released, good for the communities they return to, and good for a living Constitution in need of balance.

Prior related post:

April 1, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Prez Obama starts to "walk the walk" on clemency by granting 22 new drug offense commutations

Long-time readers know I have long complained about Prez Obama's failure to make regular use of his clemency power, and I have been especially critical over the last year when we have heard the President and his agents "talk the talk" a lot about a new clemency initiative, but not actually "walk the walk" by granting relief in a significant number of cases.  But today, as reported in this USA Today article, may finally mark the start of a truly new clemency era:

President Obama commuted the sentences of 22 convicted federal prisoners Tuesday, shortening their sentences for drug-related crimes. Eight of the prisoners who will have their sentences reduced were serving life sentences. All but one of the 22 will be released on July 28.

The White House said Obama made the move in order to grant to older prisoners the same leniency that would be given to people convicted of the same crimes today. "Had they been sentenced under current laws and policies, many of these individuals would have already served their time and paid their debt to society," White House Counsel Neil Eggleston said in a statement. "Because many were convicted under an outdated sentencing regime, they served years—in some cases more than a decade—longer than individuals convicted today of the same crime."

In issuing the commutations Tuesday, Obama has more than doubled the number he's granted in his presidency. Before Tuesday, he had issued just 21 and denied 782 commutations in his more than six years. It was the most commutations issued by a president in a single day since President Clinton issued 150 pardons and 40 commutations on his last day in office.

And it could represent the crest of a new wave of commutations that could come in Obama's last two years in office. Last year, the Justice Department announced a new clemency initiative to try to encourage more low-level drug offenders to apply to have their sentences reduced. That resulted in a record 6,561 applications in the last fiscal year, at least two of which were granted commutations Tuesday, according to the Justice Department....

Obama wrote each of the 22 Tuesday, saying they had demonstrated the potential to turn their lives around. "Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity. It will not be easy, and you will encounter many who doubt people with criminal records can change," Obama wrote. "I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong."

Of the 22 commutations granted Tuesday, 17 were for possession or trafficking in cocaine. The others were for methamphetamine, heroin and marijuana. One was also convicted of a gun charge in addition to cocaine possession. Their convictions cover a 14-year span from 1992 to 2006.

A list of the 22 individuals receiving commutations today is available via this official White House press release, and the White House blog has this new entry by Neil Eggleston titled "Upholding the Principle of Fairness in Our Criminal Justice System Through Clemency." Here is an excerpt from that entry:

Building on his commitment to address instances of unfairness in sentencing, President Obama granted 22 commutations today to individuals serving time in federal prison. Had they been sentenced under current laws and policies, many of these individuals would have already served their time and paid their debt to society. Because many were convicted under an outdated sentencing regime, they served years — in some cases more than a decade — longer than individuals convicted today of the same crime.

In total, the 22 commutations granted today underscore the President’s commitment to using all the tools at his disposal to bring greater fairness and equity to our justice system. Further, they demonstrate how exercising this important authority can remedy imbalances and rectify errors in sentencing. Added to his prior 21 commutations, the President has now granted 43 commutations total. To put President Obama’s actions in context, President George W. Bush commuted 11 sentences in his eight years in office....

While today’s announcement represents important progress, there’s more work ahead. The Administration will continue to work to review thoroughly all petitions for clemency. And, while commutation is an important tool for those seeking justice and fairness in our penal system, it is nearly always an option of last resort, coming after a lengthy court process and many years behind bars. That is why President Obama is committed to working with Democrats and Republicans on sensible reforms to our criminal justice system that aim to give judges more discretion over mandatory minimum sentencing. As the Department of Justice has noted, mandatory minimum sentences have at times resulted in harsher penalties for non-violent drug offenders than many violent offenders and are not necessary for prosecutions at this level.

Already, one significant reform has become law. In 2010, the President signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the disparity in the amounts of powder cocaine and crack cocaine required for the imposition of mandatory minimum penalties. The President is encouraged by the bipartisan support for improving our criminal justice system, including promising legislation that would implement front-end changes in sentencing. In addition, he supports bipartisan efforts to provide back-end support through better education and job training for those currently incarcerated and to reform of our juvenile justice system to build on the significant reductions in the number of youth being held in secure facilities.

March 31, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Prez Obama promising to exercise "pardon power and clemency power more aggressively"

This new Huffington Post article reports on an interview with President Barack Obama in which his clemency efforts past and present were discussed. Here are highlights:

President Barack Obama plans to grant clemency to federal offenders "more aggressively" during the remainder of his presidency, he said in a sit-down interview with The Huffington Post on Friday.

Obama has faced criticism for rarely using his power to grant pardons and commutations. In December, he commuted the sentences of eight federal drug offenders, including four who had been sentenced to life. That brought his total number of commutations to 18.

Obama said he had granted clemency so infrequently because of problems in the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney. The former head of that office, who was appointed during the George W. Bush administration, resigned in April amid criticism from criminal justice advocates. "I noticed that what I was getting was mostly small-time crimes from very long ago," Obama said. "It'd be a 65-year-old who wanted a pardon to get his gun rights back. Most of them were legitimate, but they didn't address the broader issues that we face, particularly around nonviolent drug offenses. So we've revamped now the DOJ office. We're now getting much more representative applicants."

Many of those new applications came from what's known as the Clemency Project 2014, announced when the Office of the Pardon Attorney head resigned. That project, which operates independently of the government, is intended to help DOJ sort through a huge number of applicants to figure out who meets specific criteria laid out by the administration.  But the process has been slow, and some criminal justice advocates are growing frustrated. Since the project was announced, more than 35,000 inmates -- roughly 16 percent of the total federal prison population -- have submitted applications....

Obama said Friday that the public could see the results of the project soon. "I think what you'll see is not only me exercising that pardon power and clemency power more aggressively for people who meet the criteria -- nonviolent crimes, have served already a long period of time, have shown that they're rehabilitated -- but also we're working with Democrats and Republicans around criminal justice reform issues," Obama said.

The president said it was "encouraging" to see criminal justice reform and support for the elimination of some mandatory minimum sentences as a "rare area where we're actually seeing significant bipartisan interest," with some libertarians and conservatives concerned about costs joining with Democrats. "If we can get some action done at the federal level, that will make a difference in terms of how, I think, more and more states recognize it doesn't make sense for us to treat nonviolent drug offenses the way we do," Obama said.

As I have said many times before, the Obama Administration has generally be much better at talking the talk than at walking the walk on these sorts of sentencing matters. Nevertheless, I view these comments as additional reason to believe there will be many more clemency grants by President Obama in the coming year or two than in the previous five or six.

March 21, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, March 16, 2015

Interesting review of Ohio Gov John Kasich's clemency record

In part because seemingly so few modern executives make regular use of their clemency powers, and in part because Ohio Gov John Kasich has granted clemency in a number of high-profile capital cases, I had come to think my own governor's clemency record was pretty good.   But this new Columbus Dispatch story, headlined "Kasich rarely uses clemency to pardon, commute sentences," details that Kasich's clemency record compares poorly to prior Ohio governors:

In his first four years in office, Gov. John Kasich used his executive clemency power more sparingly than any other Ohio governor in the past three decades.

He granted 66 of 1,521 requests, about 4.4 percent of 1,521 non-death-penalty cases he received and acted upon from 2011 to 2014, according to information obtained by The Dispatch under a public-records request. That makes him the most conservative with clemency of any Ohio governor going back to the 1980s, when the state began tracking gubernatorial clemency.

Last year, Kasich, a Republican who began his second term in January, approved 17 of 433 clemency requests he reviewed, about 4 percent. All of the cases approved were pardons, some going back to crimes committed more than 25 years ago. A pardon wipes out a past criminal record.

Kasich commuted the death sentences of five killers during his first term, but allowed 12 to be executed. He recently used his executive authority to push back the entire execution schedule for a year, to January 2016, to allow time for the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction to obtain sufficient quantities of new execution drugs as permitted by a change in state law....

In the past 30 years, Ohio governors have used clemency in different ways, sometimes reflecting personal ideological persuasions. Former Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, approved 20 percent of 1,615 clemency requests he handled between 2007 and 2011. Most involved low-level, nonviolent offenses, but he did commute five death-penalty sentences to life without parole.

No Ohio governor in modern history has commuted a death sentence and set a prisoner free. Republican governors George V. Voinovich (1991-98) and Bob Taft (1999-2007) each approved less than 10 percent of the clemency requests they received. Gov. James A. Rhodes, a Republican, approved 17.5 percent of clemencies in 1982, his last year in office.

Democrat Richard F. Celeste, governor from 1983 to 1991, used his clemency power most liberally, commuting the death sentences of eight killers on Death Row in his next to last day in office. He also granted clemency to 25 female prisoners, reasoning they were victims of “battered-woman syndrome” and deserved mercy.

Celeste’s actions caused an uproar, and the clemency process was legally challenged. The General Assembly changed the law to require governors to have a recommendation from the Ohio Parole Board before making any clemency decision. The governor doesn’t have to agree with the parole board, but merely have a board recommendation in hand. In fact, Kasich differed with the board in 23 cases last year, each time rejecting clemency for inmates who had been favorably recommended.

March 16, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Victims and law enforcement assail Gov Wolf's execution moratorium in Pennsylvania

As reported in this local article, folks in Pennsylvania unhappy with "Gov. Tom Wolf's moratorium on the death penalty gathered at the state Capitol on Wednesday to criticize that decision that they say was reached without input from crime victims or law enforcement officers." Here is more:

They came together on the day that death row inmate Terrence Williams was scheduled to be executed; his being the first death sentence to be reprieved as a result of the moratorium.

"Pennsylvania crime victims deserve justice. What they are receiving from the governor is politics," said Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery, at the news conference. "He could approach the Legislature to try to get the law changed or he could have filed a lawsuit in court and seek an injunction in death penalty cases. The governor chose to pursue neither of those options."

Instead, with the stroke of his pen on Feb. 13, he signed an executive order to put capital punishment in Pennsylvania on hold until he reviews a Senate-ordered study of the issue that is due later this year....

Many are awaiting the outcome of the lawsuit filed by Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams challenging Wolf's authority to impose the moratorium. The Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to hear the case.

In the meantime, Vereb has introduced a resolution calling on the governor to reverse his decision and obey the law that now exists in Pennsylvania allowing for capital punishment. While he admits that won't carry the force of law, Vereb said it at least sends a message to the governor.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Ron Marsico, R-Lower Paxton Twp., said he plans to have at least two committee hearings on the issue of capital punishment, starting with one in Philadelphia on March 26 and the other scheduled for June. This month's hearing will focus on testimony from family members of murder victims.

Throughout the news conference, legislators along with the crime victims and district attorneys standing in front of a line of photos of murder victims criticized Wolf for failing to seek their input....

York County District Attorney Tom Kearney said victims are best suited to explain the impact of Wolf's actions. He then proceeded to read a letter from Pauline Smith, whose mother June Rose Ohlinger, was murdered in 1995 in Schuylkill County by serial killer Mark Spotz who is among the 186 inmates now on death row. In her letter, Smith described the governor's decision as "a slap in the face to all of the victims of heinous crimes."

Prior related posts:

March 4, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Pennsylvania Supreme Court to review, slowly, Gov Wolf's execution moratorium

As reported in this local article, headlined "Pennsylvania Supreme Court to take death penalty moratorium case: Philadelphia DA calls governor’s actions lawless and unconstitutional," a fascinating case concerning state executive powers in the Keystone State is officially to be considered by the state Supreme Court. Here are the details:

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to take a case filed by the Philadelphia district attorney’s office challenging Gov. Tom Wolf’s moratorium implemented last month on capital punishment in the state. District Attorney R. Seth Williams asked the court to take up the matter involving a defendant named Terrance Williams, who was scheduled for lethal injection today.

Although Seth Williams asked that the court take the case on an expedited basis, the court refused, and it will be heard on a standard calendar, which means that both sides will file briefs and replies over the next several months, and oral argument will be scheduled at a date in the future.

It will probably be more than a year before any decision is reached, and University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff said it could be even longer if the court decides it wants two new justices, who will be elected later this year, to consider the case as well.

Mr. Wolf announced on Feb. 13 that he was instituting a moratorium on the death penalty in Pennsylvania, saying that it was not an “expression of sympathy for the guilty on death row, all of whom have been convicted of committing heinous crimes.” Instead, he continued, it was “based on a flawed system that has been proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust and expensive.” He cited nationwide statistics that show 150 people have been exonerated from death row, including six in Pennsylvania....

But in his filing, Seth Williams argues that Mr. Wolf’s action was lawless and unconstitutional. “Merely characterizing conduct by the governor as a reprieve does not make it so,” the prosecutor’s filing said.

Instead, it continued, “At all times in Pennsylvania history a reprieve has meant one thing and only one thing: a temporary stay of a criminal judgment for a defined period of time, for the purpose of allowing the defendant to pursue an available legal remedy. The current act of the governor is not a reprieve. Nor, indeed, could it be. There is no remaining legal remedy available to defendant. He received exhaustive state and federal review. He sought pardon or commutation and it was denied. There is nothing legitimate left to pursue and no remedy to wait for.”

To halt the imposition of the death penalty on a defendant, the district attorney’s office continued, the sentence must be commuted, which can be done only with unanimous agreement by the state Board of Pardons. Seth Williams accused the governor of usurping judicial function.

But in the governor’s response, his attorneys said what he was doing is temporary — a reprieve — and requires no input from the Board of Pardons. “The governor has ‘exclusive authority’ and ‘unfettered discretion to grant a reprieve after imposition of sentence and on a case by case basis,’ ” they wrote, quoting an earlier court case.

Prior related posts:

March 4, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, March 02, 2015

AG Holder provides Congress a sentencing reform to-do list

This new Politico story indicates that a confirmation vote for Loretta Lynch to replace Eric Holder as Attorney General may still be week away. But AG Holder is still in the midst of some parting shots as he prepares to leave his position, and this Washington Post commentary finds the AG making a full-throated pitch for more congressional sentencing reforms.  Here are excerpts from a piece headlined "Time to tackle unfinished business in criminal justice reform":

Today, a rare consensus has emerged in favor of reforming our federal drug sentencing laws.  This presents a historic opportunity to improve the fairness of our criminal justice system.  But unless we act quickly, we risk letting the moment pass.

The Justice Department has sought to be an early innovator on this front.  A year and a half ago, I launched the Smart on Crime initiative — a comprehensive effort to reorient the federal government’s approach to criminal justice....  Preliminary results from this effort are extremely encouraging....

Last year also witnessed the first overall reduction in the federal prison population in 32 years.  Most impressive of all, we achieved this drop in incarceration at the same time we cut the crime rate, marking the first simultaneous reduction in both crime and incarceration rates in more than four decades.

But while it is indisputable that we are moving in the right direction, there is a limit to what the Justice Department can accomplish on its own.  Moving forward, we need to build upon, and make permanent, these gains through action in Congress.... [A] few specific items of unfinished business should command our immediate attention.

First, although Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act to eliminate a discriminatory 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, thousands of individuals who committed crimes before 2010 are still serving sentences based on the old ratio. This is unfair.  Congress should pass legislation to apply that statute retroactively so that no one is sitting in prison serving a sentence that Congress, the president and the attorney general have all declared unjust.

Second, while the Justice Department has declined to seek harsh mandatory minimum sentences in cases where they are not warranted, we need to codify this approach. Congress should pass one of the multiple bipartisan bills aimed at restricting and refining those crimes to which mandatory minimums apply.

Third, in individual states, legislatures should eliminate statutes that prevent an estimated 5.8 million U.S. citizens from exercising their right to vote because of felony convictions.  These unfair restrictions only serve to impede the work of transitioning formerly incarcerated people back into society.

Finally, we should seek to expand the use of federal drug courts throughout the country for low-level drug offenses.  These programs provide proven alternatives to incarceration for men and women who are willing to do the hard work of recovery, and it is my hope that, in the next five years, there will be an operational drug court in every federal district — with individual states following suit.

While I will depart the Obama administration in the coming weeks — and my own formal career in law enforcement will soon draw to a close — I intend to continue this work, to promote this mission and to advance this cause.  And I hope that, in the days ahead, leaders in Congress and around the country will come together to help build the fairer, more efficient and more effective criminal justice system that all Americans deserve.

In this post over at The Volokh Conspiracy, titled "The President doesn’t need Congress’s help to fix unjust sentences," Will Baude properly notes that Prez Obama could take care of the first item on the AG's action list without any action by Congress.  As Will notes, the "Constitution gives the President 'Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States.' If the President indeed shares the Attorney General’s views, he can eliminate the thousands of unfair sentences at a few strokes of a pen."  Will speculates that "the President is unwilling to exercise his constitutional pardon power [this way] because he wants political cover if somebody who is pardoned later goes on to do something wrong." 

I am glad Will highlights the president could through commutations (or pardons) readily fix on his own problems and unfairness presented by the non-retroactivity of the Fair Sentencing Act.  Those problems persist because of President Obama's failure of resolve, not a failure of power, on this front.  In addition, I think the President could (and should) be using a lot more of his political time and energy trying to move Congress forward on other fronts as well (e.g., he could have, but failed to, talk at lengthy about these issues during his State of the Union address not long ago).

March 2, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Another account of the massiveness and messy process behind Prez clemency initiative

This lengthy new Washington Post article, headlined "U.S. clemency effort, slow to start, will rely on an army of pro bono lawyers," reports on the extraordinary scope and process behind the clemency initiative started seemingly long ago and still awaiting major action by Prez Obama. Here are excerpts:

A massive influx of applications from prisoners and a complicated review process have slowed the Obama administration’s highly touted initiative to grant clemency to nonviolent offenders, shifting the burden to an army of pro bono lawyers and specialists willing to help.

Just over a year after the administration unveiled its initiative, President Obama has commuted the sentences of eight prisoners, all of whose applications had already been submitted at the time of the announcement.  In the meantime, more than 35,000 inmates — about 16 percent of the federal prison population — have applied to have their sentences shortened under the Justice Department-led initiative.

In an unusual arrangement, the department has sought to deal with the deluge by encouraging outside lawyers to help identify candidates for earlier release and to represent them. Prisoner applications are being reviewed by more than 1,000 attorneys at 323 law firms and organizations nationwide.

“We have created what very well may be the largest, most ambitious pro-bono effort in the history of the legal profession,” said Norman L. Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, one of the four groups that make up what is known as the Clemency Project 2014.  Reimer, detailing the group’s efforts for the first time, said it spent all of 2014 “gearing up” and was hopeful the process would be accelerated soon....

Candidates for clemency under the new Justice Department criteria, released in the spring, must have served at least 10 years of their sentence, have no significant criminal history and no connection to gangs, cartels or organized crime.  Applicants also must be inmates who probably would have received a “substantially lower sentence” if convicted of the same offense today.

Even given those criteria, however, the universe of inmates who might qualify is huge, lawyers say.  “We had decades of harsh sentencing,” said Marjorie J. Peerce, a partner at Ballard Spahr in New York, whose lawyers have been screening clemency applications. “People were going to jail for decades because they were drug addicts selling a little bit of crack. There was such a disparity, and it was disproportionately affecting minorities.”...

[T]he Clemency Project — which includes Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association and Reimer’s association of criminal defense attorneys — has sent the petitions of only 14 inmates to the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney to be considered for clemency....

Lawyers with the Clemency Project say the pace is partly a symptom of dealing with clients whose cases are complex and whose ability to communicate is limited because they’re incarcerated.  Every lawyer participating in the project had to be trained to sift through the applications to identify candidates who met the Justice Department criteria.  In many cases, they had to try to locate old legal documents and contact prosecutors and judges who imposed the sentences for answers.

Most of the inmates who requested assistance from the lawyers sent applications electronically through the Bureau of Prisons computers, but several thousand who didn’t have access to computers sent paper applications that had to be manually entered into an enormous database the attorneys have built.  Prisoner applications are still trickling in. “Some of these inmates have been in 20 to 25 years. Lawyers have to try to get pre-sentencing reports and sentencing transcripts, and, in some cases, the sentencing proceeding might not have been transcribed. It’s a cumbersome process, and you want to get it right,” Peerce said.

Although the Clemency Project is facilitating the process for inmates, it is not working directly with the Justice Department.  Inmates can contact the Clemency Project, which will research and prepare petitions for qualified candidates and send them to the Office of the Pardon Attorney, or, as 5,333 inmates have done since the spring, apply directly to that office. From there, petitions with recommendations go to the office of acting Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates.

Yates then sends the petitions with her recommendations to the White House counsel, Neil Eggleston, who sends them with his recommendations to Obama. Some advocates view that process as overly cumbersome. Justice Department spokeswoman Emily Pierce said that the agency “remains committed to the President’s Clemency Initiative, consistent with our overall efforts to modernize outdated sentencing laws.”

“The Clemency Initiative is just one prong of the tools we are using to accomplish that goal, including pushing sentencing reform in Congress and through the Sentencing Commission,” Pierce said. “We also are committed to ensuring that each individual who applies is treated fairly and equally and that public safety is a consideration in each and every petition under consideration.”

Reimer, of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said that now that the Clemency Project has put in place a process for sorting out clemency applications, it plans to review and submit them to the Justice Department more quickly. “We’ve got a lot of work this year, but we’re determined to do it,” he said. “We will find everyone who may qualify and complete that by sometime early next year.”

Some prior related posts:

March 1, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

More notable new posts from the Collateral Consequences Resource Center

As regular readers know, I have made a habit of noting here notable posts from the Collateral Consequences Resource Center because the topics covered there are so interesting and get so little attention in the mainstream media (or many other places in the blogoshere). Here are a bunch of new posts from CCRC from recent weeks:

February 25, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Collateral consequences, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, February 21, 2015

New Oregon Gov pledges to continue curious capital moratorium created by her corrupt predecessor

Images (2)As reported in this new Reuters piece, headlined "New Oregon Governor Kate Brown to extend death penalty moratorium," a change in leadership at the top of the executive branch in the Beaver State is apparently not going to bring any change to the state's current peculiar death penalty practices. Here are the details:

Oregon's new Democratic Governor Kate Brown said on Friday she planned to extend a moratorium on executions that her predecessor enacted in 2011, well before an influence-peddling scandal forced him from office earlier this week.

But like fellow Democrat John Kitzhaber, Brown stopped short of formally commuting death sentences for the 34 inmates currently awaiting execution in the state, which has executed only two people in the past half century, both in the 1990s.  “There needs to be a broader discussion about fixing the system," Brown said in her first press briefing since she took Oregon's helm on Wednesday.  "Until that discussion, I'm upholding the moratorium imposed by Kitzhaber.” 

In a major salvo in the nation's long-running battle over capital punishment, Kitzhaber imposed a blanket reprieve on all Oregon death row inmates in 2011, saying he believed the death penalty was morally wrong.  He had faced growing calls in the waning days of his administration to commute all Oregon death sentences to life in prison before leaving office following an ethics scandal over accusations his fiancée used her role in his office for personal gain.

But Kitzhaber, who has not been seen publicly since announcing his resignation last week, remained silent on that issue, although he did commute the prison sentence of a young man serving time for attempted murder in a non-capital case.

Brown, who had been Oregon's secretary of state before this week, said she met with Kitzhaber on Monday and he advised her of his legislative priorities and recommendations. In addition to her death penalty plans, Brown told reporters she supports raising the minimum wage, increasing transparency and improving access to public records. 

Four years seems to me like plenty of time for the policy-makers and the public in Oregon to have a "broader discussion about fixing the system" used for administering the death penalty in the state. Notably, since Kitzhaber put the moratorium in place, I believe the Oregon legislature has enacted other forms of sentencing reform dealing with prison sentences as well as significant state health-care reforms.  In addition, Oregon public policy groups placed on the ballot in both 2012 and 2014 significant legal reform intended to "fix" perceived problems with marijuana laws and policies in the state.  If the last four years (and a number of election cycles) have not provided sufficient time for Oregonians to have a "broader discussion about fixing the system," I have a hard time imagining that the next few years are likely to engender such a discussion.

In the end, I seriously doubt that the new Oregon governor (or many others in the state) are really looking forward to having a "broader discussion about fixing the system" used for administering the death penalty in the state.  Rather, I think this phrase was the one that the new gov thought would best allow her to duck a controversial, high-profile issue for the time being (and maybe even for the full duration of her term).  For a handful of advocates, death penalty policy and practices in any state are very important, but for most citizens and voters the death penalty is a high-salience but low-significance concern.  Keeping Kitzhaber's execution moratorium in place allows the new gov to focus on other issues without the distorting distractions that death penalty politics can often create.

Some recent related posts:

February 21, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Friday, February 20, 2015

Philadelphia DA sues Pennsylvania Gov asserting execution moratorium is "lawless" and "flagrantly unconstitutional"

Images (1)As reported in this local article, "Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has sued Gov. Tom Wolf over the death penalty moratorium he imposed last week." Here the basics:

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday, Williams asks the state Supreme Court to rule Wolf's move a "lawless act," claiming the governor had no legal right to grant a reprieve to convicted murderer Terrance Williams....

The lawsuit filed by the city's Democratic district attorney is the second one the Democratic governor has faced since he was sworn in to office Jan. 20. The Republican-controlled Senate sued Wolf in Commonwealth Court over his decision to fire the executive director of the Open Records Office, which the Legislature created when it updated the state's Right-to-Know Law in 2008.

Wolf's death penalty moratorium, announced Friday, fulfilled a campaign promise. It was criticized by district attorneys, law enforcement and some lawmakers. Some religious leaders and other lawmakers praised it....

Wolf said he will grant a reprieve each time a death row inmate is scheduled for execution but keep the inmates' death sentences intact, which was what he did in the case of Terrance Williams. Williams was scheduled to be executed March 4 for the 1984 robbing and fatal tire-iron beating of another man in Philadelphia.

"The governor took the action to place a moratorium on the death penalty because Pennsylvania's capital punishment system is flawed — it's ineffective, expensive, and many times unjust," Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan said Wednesday. "As he stated Friday, the governor will wait for the report being produced by the bipartisan Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Commission on Capital Punishment, established by the state Senate, and the recommendations within the report are addressed satisfactorily."

Wolf was within his legal right to grant a reprieve under Article 4, Section 9 of the state constitution, Sheridan added. That section also gives the governor the power to commute sentences and issue pardons.

In his lawsuit, Williams says the governor can grant reprieves only as a temporary measure to allow a defendant to pursue "an available legal remedy." The governor cannot grant open-ended reprieves in cases where there are no legal questions surrounding guilt, the suit states. "Merely characterizing conduct by the governor as a reprieve does not make it so," Williams wrote, citing a successful 1994 lawsuit Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli filed against Gov. Robert P. Casey to enforce the death penalty against Martin D. Appel and Josoph Henry....

"The scope of the reprieve power is not mysterious or vague, and it is limited," Williams' lawsuit states. "Unlike some states, Pennsylvania does not grant the governor an unlimited at-will power of clemency, without which it is not even possible to posit an arguable ability to impose a moratorium."

The filing by Philadelphia DA Williams, which is styled an&"Emergency Commonwealth Petition For Extraordinary Relief Under King's Bench Jurisdiction," was filed in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania and is available at this link.  I find the filing quite effective and compelling, and I thought these passages were especially notable:

On February 13, 2015, the Governor issued a purported reprieve in connection with his publicly-announced assumption of a constitutionally-nonexistent power to declare a “moratorium” on death sentences in Pennsylvania.

This lawless act by the Governor, improperly and inaccurately characterized as a reprieve — for the act issued in this case is not, in fact, a reprieve — is not within the constitutional powers of the Governor, usurps judicial review of criminal judgments, and is in direct violation of his duty to faithfully execute Pennsylvania law under Article IV, § 2. It is unconstitutional, illegal, and should be declared null and void by this Court....

The alleged reprieve, which is not a reprieve at all, violates the constitutional separation of powers.  The constitution requires due process, not the Governor’s personal standard of absolute perfection; and the task of assuring that criminal judgments meet that correct standard is assigned to the judiciary, not the executive.Exercise, by another branch, of an extra-constitutional attempt to disturb settled judgments in criminal cases is an impermissible usurpation of the exclusive function of the judiciary....

In law and in reality, therefore, the Governor seeks to nullify valid, final judgments of sentence in usurpation of the judicial function, and seeks to subject the law governing capital sentencing to the test of his personal standard of satisfaction,which in this instance happens to be a test of infallibility that is impossible for mere mortals to satisfy. This is not permissible in a government that is founded on the principle that the people are to be ruled by laws enacted by their representatives in the legislative process, and not the personal whims of a king or dictator. The constitutional role of the Governor is to execute the law, not sabotage it.

February 20, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Would you urge out-going (and apparently corrupt) Oregon Gov Kitzhaber to commute all death sentences?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new commentary authored by Frank Thompson, a retired assistant director of institutions and superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary.  Here are excerpts:

I know what it is like to execute someone. I am a retired prison superintendent who conducted the only two executions that have taken place in Oregon in the past 53 years.

The death penalty in Oregon comes at a high cost to our state in both human and fiscal resources.  I call on Gov. Kitzhaber to convert 35 death sentences to life without the possibility of release before he leaves office at mid-morning on Wednesday.

Based on my experiences as a correctional professional, capital punishment is a failed public policy — especially in Oregon where we have funded a death penalty system for over 30 years, yet only put to death two inmates who volunteered themselves for execution by abandoning their appeals. No other corrections program exemplifies such a complete failure rate.

During my more than two decades of running correctional facilities, I saw the population of those who are capable of extreme violence up close. I have no doubts at all that these offenders did not think about the death penalty for one second before committing their violent acts. Instead, research has been shown that public safety is greatly improved when our limited tax dollars are redirected to law enforcement agencies to solve cases and prevent crimes.

I understand exactly what is being asked of public employees whose jobs include carrying out the lawful orders of the judiciary to end another person's life.  The burden weighs especially heavily on my conscience because I know firsthand that the death penalty is not applied fairly or equally in Oregon.  I have known hundreds of inmates who are guilty of similar crimes yet did not get the death penalty because they reached a plea bargain of life without parole simply because they had the means for professional legal assistance.

I also understand, from my experiences in corrections, the potential awful and lifelong repercussions that can come from participating in the execution of prisoners.  Living with the nightmares is something that some of us experience.  This is particularly the case with those of us who have had more hands-on experience with the flawed capital punishment process, and/or where an execution under our supervision did not go smoothly.

I am never troubled when people make a forceful argument that "capital punishment is a failed public policy."  But I find it troubling that this argument is being made now to a disgraced (apparently corrupt) out-going governor rather than to the new incoming governor and other public-policy officials who are going to be staying in their jobs and would need to deal with the administrative and political implications and consequences of their actions.

Notably, it is not just Oregonians urging out-going Gov Kitzhaber to clear the state's death row.  Professors Charles Ogletree and Rob Smith have this new Huffington Post commentary headlined "Gov. Kitzhaber: Your Job Is Not Yet Done." here is how it concludes:

Governor Kitzhaber declared a moratorium on the death penalty back in 2011. He labeled the State's practice of imposing death sentences "neither fair nor just" and concluded that a "compromised and inequitable" capital punishment system is not befitting of Oregon. Nothing has changed and nothing will: the death penalty in Oregon is too broken to fix.

In his resignation letter, Governor Kitzhaber told us that he was proud to not have presided over any executions. Yet, as Governor, he presided over a state that has sentenced people to death under the same unjust system that led him to impose the moratorium. The Governor has the power to leave the troubled history of this disreputable death penalty system in Oregon's rearview mirror; and doing so would enhance the integrity of the criminal justice system without compromising public safety.

Governor Kitzhaber: You lit the torch in 2011; and now, in these few remaining hours, please carry that torch across the finish line.

February 17, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack