Wednesday, November 26, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 06, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 17, 2014

ProPublica urges next AG to "Fix Presidential Pardons"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Regards,

Stephen Engelberg/Editor in Chief, ProPublica

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

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Could capital reprieve cost Colorado Gov his office?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 24, 2014

"Clemency and the Unitary Executive"

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 22, 2014

"It’s Time to Overhaul Clemency"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 15, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Defender hiccup or major headache for Clemency Project 2014?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 10, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Empirical explorations of modern capital clemency

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 02, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 16, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Download McDade opinion

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

Monday, April 28, 2014

Is change at top of The Office of the Pardon Attorney the biggest part of DOJ's new clemency initiative?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by the subheadline of this effective article by Abby Rapoport at The American Prospect. The piece carries the main headline "Pardon Me, Mr. President?", and its subheadline makes this astute observation: "By appointing an advocate for defendants' rights as the new pardon attorney, the Obama administration has signaled it is serious about commuting drug offenses." Here is a snippet from the piece (with a few links preserved, which merits a full read:

The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced the start of a new initiative on clemency, encouraging thousands of inmates — particularly those convicted during the Drug War crackdown of the 1990s — to send in petitions to have their sentences commuted.  The new initiative offers six new criteria by which petitioners will be judged, including the following: prisoners must have served 10 years of their sentence, must not have lengthy criminal records or gang convictions, and show that they would have gotten off with a lighter sentence had they been tried today. In his more than five years in office, Obama has been the stingiest president in history when it comes to granting pardons; the new program could make him one of the most generous.

But the biggest news for criminal-justice reformers has been the administration’s appointment of a new pardon attorney to oversee the program: Deborah Leff, who spent her years at DOJ working on the Access to Justice Initiative, an agency meant to help low-income defendants get a fair hearing in court.  “Poor people often do not have access to counsel, and when they do get an attorney, that lawyer is often overworked, undertrained, undercompensated, and placed in a system that encourages a quick plea bargain and discourages carefully listening to the needs of clients,”  she wrote in an article with Melanca Clark for the American Bar Association. Those who come from the prosecutorial side of things — which is most everyone at the Department of Justice — tend to be more skeptical of the idea that convicted criminals can be reformed. But Leff's background makes her more likely to be sympathetic to requests for clemency.

“One thing about law and particularly this kind of law is that almost always people are more important than rules,” says Mark Osler, a law professor at St. Thomas University and founder of the nation’s first federal clemency clinic (I recently profiled his story in our most recent print issue). “Leff’s work within the DOJ has largely been about making sure that people who have a petition or grievance have a way to have it heard fairly.” For those hoping to see a robust clemency push, her background bodes well. The administration’s clemency criteria have plenty of wiggle room, which makes the selection of a new pardon attorney all the more significant.  The department wants petitions from applicants who are “non-violent, low-level offenders without significant ties to large scale criminal organizations, gangs or cartels.”  Depending on how the U.S. pardon attorney exercises her discretion, an offender who grew up with gangs and was loosely affiliated with them could either be an ideal candidate for clemency or excluded altogether. Similarly, petitioners must have “demonstrated good conduct in prison”—a criterion that could include or exclude prisoners with one or two black marks on their records depending on the pardon attorney’s views....

Ron Rodgers, the U.S. pardon attorney until this week, was known for his opposition to clemency requests. Rodgers and David Margolis, the Department of Justice assistant deputy attorney general, both got blasted in a 2012 report for the dramatic mishandling of one particular petition during the Bush regime: Clarence Aaron, who received a triple life sentence for his role a drug conspiracy.

Leff’s appointment helps send a clear signal that this new initiative isn’t just lip service to the reform community, which until now hasn’t seen much action from the Obama administration.  Despite rhetoric in the 2008 election about the casualties of America’s War on Drugs, in his tenure the president had done little to help those still serving decades-long sentences.

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

April 28, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Saturday, April 26, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 24, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Round-up of some reactions to/reports on today's notable sentencing developments

My blogging cup runneth over today as I try to find time to read and process the Supreme Court's big child porn restitution in Paroline (basics here) and DOJ's new clemency guidelines (basics here).  Before I find time to share some of my reactions and perspectives (which may take a couple of days as I head on the road), I figured I can and should round-up here some of the reactions and perspectives of others of note:

Reactions to Paroline child porn restitution ruling:

Reactions to/reports on DOJ's new clemency guidelines:

April 23, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Justice Department formally announces its clemency initiative plans and guidelines

As expected, the US Department of Justice today announced some more formal plans and criteria for the long discussed new clemency initiative.  Two documents which I learned via an e-mail reprinted below provides the basics and links to the substance (which I will blog about a lot more in the hours and days ahead):
Announcing New Clemency Initiative, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole Details Broad New Criteria for Applicants

As part of the Justice Department’s new clemency initiative, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole announced six criteria the department will consider when reviewing and expediting clemency applications from federal inmates.

 Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole at the Press Conference Announcing the Clemency Initiative

We are launching this clemency initiative in order to quickly and effectively identify appropriate candidates, candidates who have a clean prison record, do not present a threat to public safety, and were sentenced under out-of-date laws that have since been changed, and are no longer seen as appropriate.

April 23, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Monday, April 21, 2014

Is Prez Obama likely to grant clemency to "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of imprisoned drug offenders?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new and lengthy Yahoo News article headlined "Obama plans clemency for hundreds of drug offenders: Barbara Scrivner's long quest for mercy tests a president's will — and her own faith." The article begins with focus on a woman deep into "serving a 30-year sentence in federal prison for selling a few ounces of methamphetamine," but goes on to discuss drug sentencing more generally. And these excerpts quoting a "serious administration official" really caught my attention:

Now, in his final years in office, Obama has trained his sights on prisoners like Scrivner, and wants to use his previously dormant pardon power as part of a larger strategy to restore fairness to the criminal-justice system. A senior administration official tells Yahoo News the president could grant clemency to "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of people locked up for nonviolent drug crimes by the time he leaves office — a stunning number that hasn't been seen since Gerald Ford extended amnesty to Vietnam draft dodgers in the 1970s.

The scope of the new clemency initiative is so large that administration officials are preparing a series of personnel and process changes to help them manage the influx of petitions they expect Obama to approve. Among the changes is reforming the recently censured office within the Justice Department responsible for processing pardon petitions. Yahoo News has learned that the pardon attorney, Ronald Rodgers, who was criticized in a 2012 Internal watchdog report for mishandling a high-profile clemency petition, is likely to step down as part of that overhaul. Additional procedures for handling large numbers of clemency petitions could be announced as soon as this week, a senior administration official said, though it could take longer....

When it came to using his only unfettered presidential power — to pardon felons and to reduce the sentences of prisoners — Obama was incredibly stingy in his first term. Vanita Gupta, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, calls his record on mercy "abysmal." He pardoned just 22 people — fewer than any modern president — and commuted the sentence of just one. An applicant for commutation like Scrivner had just a 1-in-5,000 chance of getting a reduced sentence with Obama in his first term — compared with a 1-in-100 chance under Presidents Reagan and Clinton, according to an analysis by ProPublica.

According to former and current administration officials, the fault for this lay mostly at the feet of the Office of the Pardon Attorney, a small corner of the Justice Department that sifts through thousands of pardon and commutation petitions each year. The pardon attorney, former military judge Ronald Rodgers, sends his recommendations of whether or not to grant the petitions to the Deputy Attorney General’s office, which then sends them on to the White House. The pardon attorney was recommending that the president deny nearly every single petition for a pardon or a reduced sentence, according to one senior official in the Obama administration....

But even though the president was almost certainly aware that the pardon process was deeply flawed, he took no steps to fix it. In 2009, Obama’s top lawyer, Gregory Craig, drafted a proposal urging a more aggressive use of the presidential pardon and clemency power, and calling the current system broken. One of Craig's recommendations was to take the pardon attorney's office out of the Department of Justice entirely, so that the people vetting clemency petitions were not so close to the system that put prisoners away in the first place. "I was of the belief that the current system for making pardon decisions was broken and it needed to be reformed," Craig said. His suggested reforms weren't implemented, and he left the White House that year....

Near the end of his first term, Obama expressed his frustration with how few positive clemency petitions were landing on his desk. He began meeting with White House Counsel Kathy Ruemmler and Holder to discuss how his pardon power could fit into his larger strategy of making the criminal-justice system fairer. (In mid-December, Holder followed up with a memo to Obama laying out his priorities for a second term in which he endorsed a more robust use of the pardon power as part of a broader criminal-justice reform initiative.) Over a series of five or 10 discussions, the president said he wanted more recommendations for pardons and commutations getting to his desk. The president complained that the pardon attorney's office favored petitions from wealthy and connected people, who had good lawyers and knew how to game the system. The typical felon recommended for clemency by the pardon attorney was a hunter who wanted a pardon so that he could apply for a hunting license....

[In] February, the Justice Department announced a new push for clemency for nonviolent drug offenders — an initiative that came out of Obama's meetings with Ruemmler and Holder. Deputy Attorney General Jim Cole solicited private defense attorneys around the country for more petitions for mercy from prisoners serving lengthy sentences for drug crimes that would most likely be prosecuted differently today, due to changes in the law. A group of advocates have created "Clemency Project 2014" to organize the petitions and send them to the Justice Department — they expect thousands to pour in....

But questions still remain about whether the pardon attorney's office is actually capable of fairly and quickly processing Scrivner's and the thousands of other expected petitions. Holder has asked for seven additional staffers for the office in his 2015 budget request, but it's unclear when they would start.

Meanwhile, more than a year after pardon attorney Rodgers was called out by the Justice Department for misrepresenting Aaron's petition to the White House, the former prosecutor and military judge is likely to finally be pushed out and replaced, a senior administration official tells Yahoo News. Rodgers was not present in a March meeting of the Justice Department, White House officials and advocates about "Clemency Project 2014," suggesting that he was already being internally marginalized.

Advocates have long been skeptical that a significant number of clemency petitions will actually get processed quickly if the current pardon attorney remained in place, given the entrenched culture there. A former pardon attorney's office employee said he believes the office could try to run out the clock on the petitions, knowing full well that the president has only a few years left. New leadership could change that....

Last month, the president walked into the East Room to greet dozens of U.S. attorneys who traveled to the White House to discuss criminal-justice issues. The president told them he was expecting an influx of clemency applications for his new push, and warned that he wanted them to personally examine them all and not "reflexively" deny them. "I take my clemency authority very seriously," he told them.

With just a few years left of Obama's presidency, Scrivner, and others, will soon find out if he means it.

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

UPDATE: Though balky blogging software precluded adding comments and updating this post, I can finally now post this link to an official statement from the Justice Department and AG Holder about still-emerging clemency plans. here is how it starts:

In an important step to reduce sentencing disparities for drug offenders in the federal prison system, Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday announced that the Justice Department will soon detail new, more expansive criteria that the department will use in considering when to recommend clemency applications for President Obama’s review.

In anticipation of the increase of eligible petitioners, the Justice Department is preparing to assign lawyers -- with backgrounds in both prosecution and defense – to review the applications. “The White House has indicated it wants to consider additional clemency applications, to restore a degree of justice, fairness and proportionality for deserving individuals who do not pose a threat to public safety,” said Attorney General Holder in a video message posted on the department’s website. “The Justice Department is committed to recommending as many qualified applicants as possible for reduced sentences.”

Later this week, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole is expected to announce more specific details about the expanded criteria the department will use and the logistical effort underway to ensure proper reviews of the anticipated wave of applications.

April 21, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Critical reflections on the Cantu commutation ... aka why some federal prosecutors perhaps deserve to be demonized

220px-TrialKafkaThe more I reflect on the typo-correction sentence commutation of federal prisoner Cesar Huerta Cantu (basics here), and especially after re-reading this 2255 dismissal order that followed Cantu's own effort to have a court fix its own significant sentencing error, the more disgusted I feel about the modern federal sentencing system and especially about the U.S. Department of Justice and those federal prosecutors most responsible for Cesar Cantu's treatment by our Kafkaesque system.  In an effort to achieve some catharsis, let me try to briefly explain my feelings in three basic points:

1.  Cantu's original federal sentencing as guidelines numerology:  My disgust begins as I think about the basic reality that our federal sentencing system enables a small numerical typo — what should have been a 34 was a 36 in the presentence report guideline calculations — to result in 38-year-old defendant with no criminal history (who pleaded guilty and had considerable family support) to get sentenced to an extra 3.5 years in prison.  I continue to struggle to find much sense of justice or wisdom in a federal sentencing system in which quantitative numbers invented by a government agency, rather than qualitative factors and reasoned judgment, often still conclusively determine how many years or decades defendants are ordered to spend locked in a cage.

2.  Cantu's original federal sentencing as federal actors gone numb:  Arguably more depressing than a federal sentencing system in which numbers invented by a government agency determine how long a defendant gets locked up are sentencing actors whose concern for the human realities of incarceration have been numbed by all the numbers.  One would hope that, as part of a system in which years of human experience for federal defendants (and those who care about them) get determined by basic math, everyone involved would make extra sure the math is always done right.  But, numbed by so many humans being imprisoned for so many years based on so many numbers, the author of the PSR did not notice a typo that inflated Cantu's guideline-recommend prison sentence by many years, and neither did the defense attorney representing Cantu, and neither did the US Attorneys prosecuting Cantu, and neither did the federal judge sentencing Cantu.

3.  Cantu's dismissed 2255 motion as federal prosecutors possessed:  Bill Otis and others sometimes complain that I seem at times to suggest federal prosecutors are evil or satanic.  In fact, I have great respect for the hard work of federal prosecutors, and I am sure I would much rather have my daughters date 99% of federal prosecutors than 99% of federal defendants.  But I must wonder about what kind of evil or satanic forces may have possessed the federal prosecutors who responded to Cantu's pro se 2255 motion to correct his sentence with a motion to dismiss this matter as time-barred.  

Based on my reading of this 2255 dismissal order that followed Cantu's motion, federal prosecutors have never disputed that a  typo resulted in Cantu receiving a sentence 3.5 years longer than he should have, nor have they disputed that federal government officials are wholly responsible for this consequential error.  Still, the federal prosecutors who contributed to a mistake costing Cantu 3.5 years of his freedom responded to his 2255 motion by urging the sentencing judge also responsible for this mistake to refuse to correct Cantu's sentence because Cantu discovered their mistakes too late.  I am hard-pressed to come up with adjectives to describe this federal prosecutorial decision to seek dismissal of Cantu's 2255 motion other than inhumane.

I want to be able to imagine a positive motivation for why federal prosecutors sought a procedural dismissal of Cantu's motion to correct his indisputably erroneous sentence: perhaps, I was thinking, six years after prosecutors helped get an erroneously long sentence imposed on Cantu, these prosecutors came to believe Cantu was a criminal mastermind still involved in serious criminal wrongdoing from prison.  But, as this New York Times article reports, years after his initial erroneous sentencing, Cantu provided "law enforcement authorities with substantial assistance on an unrelated criminal matter" and "he has been a model prisoner, taking vocational and life skills courses and expressing remorse."  In addition, according to the Times reporting, Cantu is married and has 8-year old daughter.  Even if prosecutors were, for whatever reasons, disinclined to help Cantu get his erroneous sentence fixed after Cantu himself had helped the prosecutors, wouldn't they lose a little sleep over the notion that a typo could end up costing Cantu's wife the chance to have her husband's help to raise their daughter during her coming adolescence?

I am hoping Bill Otis or other current or former federal prosecutors will help me feel better about the work of our federal sentencing system and the Department of Justice in the wake of the Cantu commutation.  Especially because Prez Obama has been so stingy with his clemency power, I want this latest commutation to be a reason to celebrate rather than curse our justice system.  But unless and until someone can metamorphasize my understanding of the work of federal prosecutors in this case, I have a hard time not thinking that Josef K. and Cantu have far too much in common. 

April 16, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (25) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Prez Obama commutes 15-year sentence for marijuana offender down to 11.5 years

Build-itIf NYU Law builds it, the President's counsel will come ... and, it seems, the President will act!  

With apologies for the bad "Field of Dreams" reference, I am not sure how else to react to the news I have got via this press release while I am sitting in the audience excited to be at this amazing on-going NYU conference on "Mercy in the Criminal Justice System: Clemency and Post-Conviction Strategies" with the keynote speaker White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler.   I was hoping and expecting the White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler would be making news via her afternoon keynote, but her boss beat her to the punch as the full text of the press release reveals:

Today, President Barack Obama granted clemency to the following individual:

• Ceasar Huerta Cantu, also known as Cesar Huerta Cantu – Katy, Texas

Offenses: Conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute marijuana; money laundering (Western District of Virginia)

Sentence: 180 months’ imprisonment (as amended), five years’ supervised release (May 11, 2006)

Commutation Grant: Prison sentence commuted to 138 months’ imprisonment

Thanks to the wonderful internet, I found this 2255 dismissal order concerning the Cantu case which suggests that Cantu received an erroneous initial sentence that he was unable to get changed via traditional legal means. But it is unclear from this order alone whether this sentence calculation error provides the basis and reason for this notable commutation.  A quick read of the order does suggest that the reduction from 180 to 138 appears to reflect precisely the sentence Cesar Huerta Cantu would have and should have gotten (after getting substantial assistane credit) had his initial sentence been calculated properly. 

Live-blogging UPDATE:  In her keynote speech at this NYU conference, White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler is talking up this grant and says that it shows that clemency can serve as a "fail-safe" for correcting errors that cannot be corrected by other means.

WH Counsel Ruemmler has announced that DOJ via BOP is going to alert federal prisonsers about the on-going clemency initiative previously announced by Deputy AG Cole.

MSM UPDATE:  Lots of press reports are now providing context for this grant such as this AP article headlined "Obama commutes sentence made longer by typo."

April 15, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Terrific upcoming NYU Law conference on "Mercy in the Criminal Justice System"

Image001I am very pleased and very excited that on April 15 this year I will be spending all day thinking and talking about something other than my income tax forms.  That is because, as detailed in the program linked at the bottom of this post, I will be spending that day attending and speaking at the Sixth Annual Conference of the NYU Law School's Center on the Administration of Criminal Law.  This year's NYU Center conference is focused on clemency and related topics.

The full official title for the event, which runs from 10am to 4pm at NYU Law is "Mercy in the Criminal Justice System: Clemency and Post-Conviction Strategies," and the keynote speaker is White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler.  Here is a brief account of the panels and participants scheduled to surround the keynote:

Panel 1: The Role of Law Schools in Delivering Clemency and Post-Conviction Assistance.

This panel will discuss how law schools are providing critical services to prisoners through clemency clinics and other mechanisms, and will also provide practical training on how to effectively prepare clemency petitions, post-conviction motions and provide other reentry support to prisoners.

Moderator: Prof. Mark Osler, University of St. Thomas Law School.  Panelists: Prof. Anthony Thompson, NYU Law; Prof. J.P. “Sandy” Ogilvy, Columbus School of Law, Catholic University; Harlan Protass, Esq., Clayman & Rosenberg; Prof. Joann M. Sahl, University of Akron Law School.

Panel 2: What We Can Learn About Clemency From the States.

This panel will examine the different ways clemency and pardon petitions are administered in selected states with effective systems.

Moderator: Nancy Hoppock, Executive Director of the CACL. Panelists: Lt. Governor Matthew Denn, State of Delaware; Hon. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., King & Spalding and former Governor of Maryland; Margaret Love, Esq., former U.S. Pardon Attorney; Jorge Montes, Esq., former Chairman of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board.

Panel 3: The Future of Clemency.

This panel will discuss recent developments in federal clemency and where clemency could and should be headed in the future.

Moderator: Prof. Rachel E. Barkow, NYU Law. Panelists: Amy Baron-Evans, National Federal Defender Sentencing Resource Counsel; Prof. Paul G. Cassell, University of Utah Law School; Prof. Douglas A. Berman, The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law; Sam Morison, Esq.; Dafna Linzer, Managing Editor of MSNBC.com.

Persons can register for this great and timely conference at this link.

Download CACL.ClemencyProgram5

April 2, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Victims' families laments Gov's execution moratorium in Washington

As reported in this local article, headlined "Families urge Inslee to reconsider death penalty moratorium," not everyone is content with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee's decision earlier this month to impose a moratorium on executions while he is governor (basics here):

Families of murder victims are urging Governor Inslee to reconsider his moratorium on the death penalty. They traveled to Olympia Wednesday to ask why the governor never consulted with them before making his decision.   State lawmakers are considering a bill to make sure the families' voices are heard. 

"I am here Governor Inslee and I've got to say I'm very surprised that you're not here looking at all these victims," said Sherry Shaver, whose daughter Talisha was killed by Dewayne Woods in 1996. "We're here to speak about this. Where are you Gov. Inslee?"  Woods was sentenced to death. But that sentence is on hold with the governor's stunning statement that he would not sign a death warrant as long as he's in office. 

"I never talked to the governor about this," said Jessie Ripley. Her mother Jane Hungerford-Trapp was killed in Tacoma by Cecil Davis. "The governor needs to look at each and every situation as if it was his family. As if he was a victim himself."...  

[A] bill (SB 6566) by State Sen. Steve O'Ban ... would enforce the idea that families of the victims need to be heard before any decision is made on whether to go ahead with an execution.  He said, "There can be no justice if the voices of the victims are not heard."

Lewis County prosecutor Jonathan Meyers said," (Inslee) disrespected the victims. They deserve closure. They deserve their voice to be heard and the decision he leveled silenced all of them." 

The bill got its first public hearing Wednesday.  Even if it were to pass, the sponsor admits it wouldn't negate the governor's decision.  However, it would be a mandate for future governor's to listen to families first and then make a decision.

Related prior post:

February 27, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Curious DOJ clemency campaign continues through meeting with defense groups

This notable NPR story, headlined "Justice Dept. Asks For Help Finding Prisoners Who Deserve Clemency," reports on the latest development concerning the curious (though encouraging) new DOJ push for clemency candidates.  Here are the details:

The second-in-command at the Justice Department met Tuesday with defense lawyers and interest groups to identify the cases of worthy prisoners who could qualify for clemency.

The initiative by Deputy Attorney General James Cole follows a speech he gave last month suggesting the White House intends to make more use of the president's power to shorten prison sentences for inmates who have clean records, no significant ties to gangs or violence, and who are serving decades behind bars for relatively low-level offenses.

Cole wants to enlist lawyers to help solicit and prepare clemency requests. It's part of a broader effort to stop spending so much money incarcerating people that it squeezes the public safety budget. A Justice Department spokesman says Cole "wants to ensure that individuals like the eight whose sentences the president commuted in December have access to attorneys to help them present their cases."

Longtime followers of the pardon power have criticized President Obama's relatively stingy approach over five years in office.  They also suggest that backlogs in the Justice Department's Office of Pardon Attorney might get worse if the call for more prisoner petitions takes hold. But the Justice spokesman says Cole has made this effort a top priority and that he's instructed the pardon attorney to do the same, taking some steps to handle any influx of clemency requests in the months ahead.

Representatives from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Federal public defender program and Families Against Mandatory Minimums had been scheduled to attend the meeting at Justice Department headquarters.  Mary Price of FAMM, one of the attendees, says she came away feeling "really encouraged."

"We look forward to working together with them and others to help identify potential commutation cases and ensure prisoners have trained pro bono counsel to submit focused petitions for the meaningful consideration the Deputy Attorney General has pledged they will receive," Price says.

Some recent and older posts concerning federal clemency practices:

February 19, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Washington Gov declares moratorium on executions during his term

InsleeAs reported in this new Seattle Times article, headlined "Inslee halts executions in state while he is governor," in the Evergreen State the Governor has decided to use his clemency power to create a (temporary?) moratorium on executions.  Here are the basics:

Gov. Jay Inslee is calling a moratorium on executions while he is governor. “Equal justice under the law is the state’s primary responsibility,” Inslee said during a news conference Tuesday morning. “And in death penalty cases, I’m not convinced equal justice is being served.”

Inslee said there was “too much at stake” in death penalty cases in what he termed an “imperfect system.” Inslee cited the high cost of trials and appeals, the apparent randomness in which death penalties are pursued and concerns that executions do not deter crime as reasons for his decision. Inslee said he is not asking the state Legislature to abolish the death penalty.

“As governor, it is on my shoulders to come up with a decision for our whole state,” Inslee said. “I have made a decision. It is not an easy one.”

There are currently nine men on Washington’s death row. He said that if a death penalty case crosses his desk for action, he will issue a reprieve, which will potentially only be in effect while Inslee is governor. He said he does not intend to commute any death sentences. “The citizens of the state of Washington can be assured the men of death row will be in prison for as long as they live,” he said.

When questioned, Inslee acknowledged the moratorium may not necessarily save money, particularly since appeals will still likely be filed. However, the move could prompt county prosecutors to not seek the death penalty in some cases, thus realizing some savings....

“Washington’s Constitution and state statutes grant the governor significant powers over the fate of individuals sentenced to death,” Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a statement Tuesday morning. “Consequently, the governor has the authority to hit the ’pause’ button for executions in Washington.”

However, Ferguson said his office will continue to represent the state when death-row inmates file challenges to their convictions or sentences with the federal courts. Currently, there are four such cases before the federal courts, he said....

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, in a written statement, said the legal ramifications of Inslee’s “reprieve policy” appear limited and that state law remained unchanged. However, he said in the short term it is likely to cause more delays, expense and uncertainty. “A moratorium alone will not resolve the issues raised by the Governor,” Satterberg said. “Let’s have an informed public debate and let the citizens of Washington decide if we should keep capital punishment in our state.”

The death penalty has come under fire in Washington state for a variety of reasons, including what some have termed inconsistencies in when it is sought. For example, in the case of Green River Killer Gary L. Ridgway, King County prosecutors gave up on capital punishment in exchange for his cooperation in providing detectives details that helped solve dozens of open murder cases. Ridgway pleaded guilty to 48 counts of aggravated first-degree murder in 2003 and was sentenced to life in prison.

State Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, has repeatedly introduced legislation to ban the death penalty Of the governor’s moratorium, Carlye said, “It’s a profound shift. He has opened a legitimate conversation. … It sets in motion a legitimate and genuine public conversation.”

But he said the moratorium would not likely spur legislative action this year, noting that last Friday was the cutoff for non-budget-related bills to make it out of committee. “In 2015, we will ask the public to join us in this conversation,” said Carlyle, who will push for a bill then.

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, disagreed with Inslee’s decision, calling it “shortsighted.”

“I think that is going off on his own and is certainly nothing the Legislature has authorized,” Padden said, noting that Inslee had not consulted him. “I question it, I really do,” Padden said of the moratorium. “To victims it’s the wrong message. The relatives who have suffered the deaths. They have gone through 10 years or more of waiting. ... For the governor to unilaterally take that away I think is wrong.”

Cal Coburn Brown, the last person executed in the state, died by lethal injection in September 2010 for the 1991 murder of Holly Washa in SeaTac. Jonathan Lee Gentry, sentenced for the 1988 murder of 12-year-old Cassie Holden in Kitsap County, is expected to be the next inmate in line to be executed.. Last month, the state Supreme Court rejected a petition for release filed by Gentry’s defense team. Gentry just filed another appeal, based on DNA testing.

Cassie Holden’s father, Frank Holden, said Tuesday he was angry at Inslee and devastated by his decision. He said he spoke with the governor for the first time Monday night when Inslee called to tell him about the moratorium. “There wasn’t much of a discussion. There wasn’t much of a chance for input. He had this thing all planned out,” Holden said, adding that the only thing he was able to tell Inslee was that he was disappointed in his decision.”

“I’ve waited 26 years for justice to happen and now it’s not going to happen because of him. It went through every court system possible,” Holden said, speaking from his business in Pocatello, Idaho. Holden said he thinks about his daughter every day; she would now be 37. “After he told me what he was doing it was nothing compared to the death of my daughter, but it was up there,” Holden said.

Kitsap County Prosecutor Russ Hauge said Tuesday morning he is disappointed by Inslee’s announcement and its potential impact on Gentry’s case. Hauge said he could “see an end in sight” for the Gentry case, because after more than 20 years the man had exhausted most of his appeals. “If ever there was a case that warranted the death penalty, it’s the case of Jonathan Gentry. This is exactly this is what the statute was meant to address,” Hauge said.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., said Inslee is not be the first governor in the nation to oppose the death penalty. Last year, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper granted a reprieve to an inmate who killed four people at a Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant in 1993 after finding the state’s death penalty system to be “imperfect and inherently inequitable,” according to The Denver Post. Dieter said the move means that the inmate won’t be executed while Hickenlooper is governor.

The full text of Governor Inslee’s remarks announcing his execution moratorium can be accessed at this link.

February 11, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Monday, February 10, 2014

New York Times editorial makes pitch for "Mercy in the Justice System"

The New York Times published this notable editorial today calling for a serious fix to the broken federal clemency system.  Here are excerpts:

The constitutional provision that gives the president virtually unlimited authority to grant clemency was not an afterthought.  The founders understood very well that there could be miscarriages of justice even under the rule of law.  By allowing the president to commute unjust sentences or pardon deserving petitioners who had served their time, they sought to ensure that the workings of the courts could be tempered with mercy.

Presidents Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Lincoln, and Truman viewed the clemency process as a central mission of the office. But the concept of mercy went out of fashion by the 1980s, when the country embarked on a mandatory sentencing craze that barred judges from exercising leniency when it was clearly warranted and placed the justice system almost entirely in the hands of prosecutors.  As a consequence, even first-time offenders were largely viewed as beyond redemption.

These laws drove up the prison population 10-fold and filled the jails with young, low-level drug offenders who were confined far longer than their offenses warranted.  They also created a large and growing class of felons, who are trapped permanently at the margins of society by postprison sanctions — laws that bar them from jobs and housing, strip them of the right to vote and make it difficult for them to obtain essential documents like driver’s licenses.

The perpetual punishment model of justice has had far-reaching consequences.  Politicians stayed as far away from clemency as they could, fearing that voters would view them as soft on crime.  Meanwhile, at the Justice Department, the clemency process — which had been a cabinet-level responsibility — fell under the authority of prosecutors who seemed to view even reasonable lenience as a threat to the prosecutorial order.  The time required to handle clemency applications went from months to years; the backlog grew; the stream of mercy that had once flowed began to dry up.

The clemency system, in other words, is in a state of collapse.  The Justice Department admitted as much last month, when the deputy attorney general, James Cole, asked the criminal defense bar to help the department find suitable candidates for clemency among the many thousands of people who were casualties of the mandatory-sentencing era....

The Justice Department’s sudden interest in the clemency problem is good news, but asking defense lawyers for help is a haphazard approach.  What’s needed is wholesale reform of the department’s pardon office, which has proved itself ineffective and incompetent, partly because the current process relies on the department to evaluate its own work.

One sound idea is to create a clemency review panel outside the Justice Department, perhaps as a part of the executive office.  Mr. Obama could form an advisory board, or reconfigure the pardon office to include defense lawyers, sociologists and other experts who would bring a broader perspective to the issue.  The goal would be to give the president unbiased information that would enable him to exercise fully this important aspect of executive power.

February 10, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (20) | TrackBack

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Lethal injection concerns leads Ohio Gov Kasich to postpone next execution for 8 months

As reported in this local article, "unresolved concerns about the drugs used to execute Dennis McGuire last month prompted Gov. John Kasich yesterday to postpone the scheduled March 19 lethal injection of Gregory Lott."  Here is more:

Without comment, Kasich rescheduled Lott’s execution, delaying it for eight months, until Nov. 19.  Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols said the governor wants to give the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction time to complete its internal review of McGuire’s Jan. 16 execution.  “Gregory Lott committed a heinous crime for which he will be executed,” Nichols added.

It was the second execution that Kasich had postponed in recent months. On Nov. 13, Kasich pushed back Ronald Phillips’ execution to July 2 to give him an opportunity to pursue organ donation to a family member....

Attorneys for Lott, 51, quickly challenged his upcoming execution, arguing that the drugs could cause “unnecessary pain and suffering” in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. A hearing has been scheduled for Feb. 19 in U.S. District Judge Gregory L. Frost’s court.

The next question involves what happens to four other convicted killers scheduled to be put to death before November. They are Arthur Tyler, May 28; Phillips, July 2; William Montgomery, Aug. 6; and Raymond Tibbetts, Oct. 15.

Lott was convicted and sentenced to death for killing John McGrath, 82, by setting him on fire in his Cleveland-area home in 1986. McGrath survived in a hospital for 11 days before dying. Lott came close to execution in 2004, but the U.S. Supreme Court blocked it to give his attorneys time to examine evidence they said had been withheld. “We are very grateful for the governor’s decision,” said Dana C. Hansen Chavis, an assistant public defender from Knoxville, Tenn., who is one of Lott’s attorneys.

Kevin Werner, executive director of Ohioans to Stop Executions, praised Kasich for showing “ leadership and careful consideration” by issuing a reprieve. State Rep. Nickie J. Antonio, D-Lakewood, urged Kasich to “use his executive power to grant a full moratorium on executions until the state can guarantee that humane and constitutional policies will be utilized. Ultimately, I think such guidelines would lead to the abolishment of the use of the death penalty.”

I see little reason why it should take more than a few weeks for the Ohio DRC to conduct a complete review of the execution of Dennis McGuire. In addition, I expect more delay before conducting the next Ohio execution will end up facilitating still more litigation over Ohio's latest execution protocols and its new use of a two-drug execution cocktail.

That all said, I wonder if this delay is primarily designed to give Ohio officials more time to try to secure Ohio's preferred execution drug, pentobarbital, from a compounding pharmacy. Missouri a few weeks ago completed an execution using just a batch of pentobarbital manufactured by a compounding pharmacy, and I suspect Ohio would prefer to find a way to follow that execution approach rather that try again with the two-drug approach use to put down McGuire.

As has been the reality in Ohio for a number of years now, it seems that legal and practical uncertainty will continue to surround the state's efforts to carry out death sentences. But now the next execution date to watch closely will be in May rather than March thanks to Gov. Kasich giving Lott at least eight more months to be alive.

A few recent related posts:

February 8, 2014 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Reflecting on Obama Administration's latest "half-way" approach to clemency

Mark Osler authored this effective commentary concerning the recent comments coming from the Department of Justice concerning a new focus on granting clemency.  The piece carries the headline "Only half-way there on mercy," and here are excerpts:

In an extraordinary speech to the New York State Bar Association earlier this week, Deputy Attorney General James Cole did two significant things.

First, he announced that when President Obama used the pardon power in December to commute eight lengthy federal sentences for narcotics trafficking, this was only a “first step,” and that there is “more to be done.”  Second, he outlined how a much more extensive round of commutations might happen.  The first of these was historic, remarkable, and right. The second part is more problematic.

The good news is that this administration, unlike its most recent predecessors, intends to use the pardon power in a vigorous and principled way....

The method Cole outlined to produce more commutations is where the problem lies.  The administration intends to have the Bureau of Prisons spur inmates to seek commutations and then encourage state bar associations to direct their members to prepare petitions for those inmates.

Cole made this appeal to deputize lawyers in a very direct way during his New York speech  — telling the bar association there that “this is where you can help.”  The hope is that, in the end, this will produce a wave of good candidates for commutation.

Unfortunately, this solution doesn’t address the actual problem with federal clemency. No one has suggested that what is broken with the pardon power is that there aren’t enough petitions in the system — to the contrary, there is a backlog of some 3,500 clemency petitions awaiting a decision.

The problem is that the process doesn’t work.  The pipeline is clogged, and the solution can’t be simply to jam more things into it.  The present structure for consideration of these often-complicated petitions has done a terrible job handling the workload it has now; it’s unclear how giving the pardon attorney and the others who consider these petitions even more work is supposed to solve the problem. Increasing the size of the clog does nothing to clear out a pipe....

Critics hailing from such diverse corners as the Heritage Foundation and the American Constitution Society have called for wide-ranging reform of the pardon process.  This might be the time to implement significant changes, such as removing many levels of review and giving the person or committee charged with making recommendations on clemency much more frequent and direct access to the president.

Even if systemic reform of the process isn’t undertaken or doesn’t take immediate effect, a shorter-term solution is available.  Obama could empanel a presidential clemency board for a period of 12 to 18 months to consider the mass of petitions that may be generated through the process Cole described.

This pop-up agency would push through the egg in the snake, make its recommendations, and disband.  Their efforts would be revenue-positive (because of savings in incarceration costs), further an important policy goal that has been embraced by members of both parties and all three branches of government, and avoid the dangers presented when a new, permanent bureaucracy is established. What’s not to like about that?

Some recent and older posts concerning federal clemency practices:

February 4, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, February 02, 2014

"Citing Catholic faith, family of victim seeks to keep condemned Cleveland killer from lethal injection"

The title of this post is the headline of this interesting recent Cleveland Plain Dealer article highlighting a notable set of voices expressing a faith-based disinterest in completing the next scheduled execution in Ohio.  Here are the details:

Irene Allain and her family want to prevent condemned killer Gregory Lott's execution. And they're relying on their faith to do it. Allain is the daughter of John McGrath, the 82-year-old man Lott is convicted of killing a vicious attack in East Cleveland in July 1986. Nearly 28 years later, Lott is scheduled to die March 19 for the crime.  And Allain and her family are pushing that the sentence be changed from death to life in prison.

"Although it has been difficult for me to come to terms with how my father died, I do not agree with executing Gregory Lott," Allain wrote in an affidavit that Lott's attorneys are using to seek clemency for him. "I am a devout Catholic, as is my family.  I believe that life in prison is a just punishment for Gregory Lott. I believe his death sentence should be commuted to life imprisonment."

As the debate over the death penalty simmers in Ohio, most recently sparked by the drawn-out execution of Dennis McGuire earlier this month, McGrath's family members highlight the issue from a different perspective.  And they aren't alone.  A growing number of families of victims are urging courts to avoid using the death penalty as a punishment.

"There is an automatic assumption that victims' families want the death penalty, but that has been challenged in the past five to 10 years," said Scott Bass, the executive director of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation. "There is a rising number of victims' families who don't want the death penalty. For many, the death penalty adds 20 to 30 years to the trial. It prolongs the agony for families."

But not all families believe that. Take the relatives of Joy Stewart, the pregnant woman who was brutally attacked and killed by McGuire.  Her family, in a statement to reporters at the execution, said they have forgiven McGuire, "but that does not negate the need for him to pay for his actions. It's time -- past time -- for him to pay for what he did to my sister."

In the case of Lott, it is clear that McGrath's family wants him to remain in prison. "I don't want to put my imprimatur on a man's execution,'' said Jack McGrath, a grandson. "Much of this is because of my Roman Catholic faith.  When I first learned of this in 1986, I almost thought of taking matters into my own hands.  But time has healed our wounds. I don't believe in the death penalty because of my faith."...

In a letter to prosecutors before his trial, Lott admitted to the slaying and pleaded for a deal that would spare him the death penalty.  "I am ready and willing to go to court any day or time and take the 30 years," Lott wrote to prosecutors. "I beg that you would let me plead guilty to the murder.  I am very sorry and remorseful for what happened to Mr. McGrath.''

But the deal never came. Months later, a three-judge panel convicted him and him sentenced to die.  Lott's execution date has been pushed back twice after legal challenges, including one that accused Carmen Marino, then an assistant Cuyahoga County prosecutor, of failing to turn over evidence to defense attorneys.  A federal judge in 2007 rejected Lott's appeal.  Following other appeals, he was given a new execution date....

Jack McGrath, the grandson of the man Lott killed, said he has thought a good deal about revenge and spoke with a Catholic priest.  "Twenty-eight years ago, I felt very much like that," he said. "But there comes a point when you say to yourself, 'Can this guy be forgiven?' What has happened has happened. It's not my place to judge."

This story is substantively interesting because it involves family members of a murder victim making a forceful faith-based pitch for clemency. But it is also practically so interesting because it could give Ohio Governor John Kasich a very reasonable basis to grant the condemned murderer here a commutation to LWOP and thereby prevent the next six week being filled with huge legal fights over Ohio's two-drug execution protocol. Of course, those legal fights are inevitable whenever Ohio gets close to another execution, but the Gov and other Ohio officials might find it quite beneficial to have a few more months to gear up for these fights without a March execution date looming.

February 2, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Friday, January 31, 2014

Professor/practitioner perspective on DAG Cole's puzzling clemency conversation

Nearly everyone I know invested in the modern debate over federal clemency policies and practice have been intrigued and puzzled by the clemency comments made by Deputy Attorney General James Cole yesterday at the New York State Bar Association Annual Meeting (basis here and here). Helpfully, Professor Mark Osler agreed to write up his thoughts for posting here in order to provide a thoughtful perspective on that DAG Cole's comments might mean and portend:

Since starting a federal commutations clinic a few years ago, I’ve become fascinated by the clemency process. For those of us who care deeply about the constitutional pardon power, the speech by Deputy Attorney General Jim Cole in New York was a bombshell. In short, Cole announced that President Obama’s grant of eight commutations in December was just a “first step,” and that “there was more to be done.”  This isn’t subtle signaling; it is a bold and admirable announcement that the administration plans to use the pardon power systemically to address over-incarceration in narcotics cases. This is great news for those serving such sentences, sure, but it also is a remarkable moment for the pardon power itself, which has not played such an important and principled role in the justice system for decades.

There are some open questions, though. Cole said the December commutations were a “first step,” and outlined generally what the second step will be — an apparent move to funnel many more cases through the existing process. Cole described three parts of this process. First, the Bureau of Prisons will advise inmates of their right to petition for clemency and then direct inmates who respond to bar associations that are willing to help prepare petitions. Second, bar associations will then coordinate the preparation of these petitions. Third, a member of Cole’s staff will coordinate all of this.

If it works, this will result in a flood of petitions being sent to the federal pardon attorney, a DOJ functionary. Therein lies the rub. The pardon attorney, and the rest of the process between the pardon attorney and the President, has hardly been a model of efficiency. In December, those eight commutations and thirteen pardons that were granted were dwarfed by what currently clogs the pipeline — over 3,500 petitions for clemency are currently unresolved. Presumably, these new petitions will take their place at the bottom of that large pile.

At best, this will all work out somehow — there might be a plan to improve the process that we don’t know about. At worst, Cole is waving more traffic onto a jammed freeway, without first clearing the wrecks and opening the exit ramps.

Generating more clemency petitions is a good thing, but it needs to be accompanied by an administration plan to process and grant more petitions. Gerald Ford did this efficiently by creating a Presidential Clemency Board, which evaluated thousands of clemency petitions from Vietnam-era draft evaders and Army deserters. Ford’s Board did this in exactly one year, at low cost. That model should be used here. If the freeway isn’t moving, adding more cars won’t help much.

January 31, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Deputy AG Cole's remarkable remarks to the NYSBA

Via an early New York Times article, I have already reported here on some of the clemency comments delivered today byDeputy Attorney General James Cole at the New York State Bar Association Annual Meeting.  But i have now had a chance to review the whole text of the speech delivered by Deputy AG Cole, which can be accessed here, and anyone interested in federal sentencing policy and reform should read the whole text.  Here are just a few sections that really caught my attention as a sentencing geek:

I want to talk with you today about the crisis we have in our criminal justice system. A crisis that is fundamental and has the potential to continue to swallow important efforts in the fight against crime. This crisis is the crushing prison population....

Over half of the federal prison population is there for drug offenses.  Some are truly dangerous people, who threaten the safety of our communities and need to be taken off the streets for a long time.  But others are lower level drug offenders, many with their own drug abuse issues, who fall into the all too common vicious cycle of drug abuse, crime, incarceration, release — and then the cycle repeats.

In addition, there is a basic truth that dollars are finite. Every dollar we spend at the Department of Justice on prisons — and last year we spent about $6.5 billion on prisons - is a dollar we cannot spend supporting our prosecutors and law enforcement agents in their fight against violent crime, drug cartels, public corruption, financial fraud, human trafficking, and child exploitation, just to mention a few.  In other words, if we don’t find a solution to the federal prison population problem, public safety is going to suffer.

Recognizing this dynamic, the Justice Department has been working hard to come up with solutions to stem the tide....

All of these Departmental efforts recognize the need for a broader, smarter approach to criminal justice.  We believe these efforts enhance our ability to protect our communities and maximize public safety.  These efforts not only ensure that we continue to be “smart on crime” from a limited resource perspective, but they also help to ensure that federal laws are enforced fairly.

And embedded in this issue of fairness is the consideration of sentence reductions for those who, at an earlier time, encountered severe and inflexible sentencing laws.

This brings me to another issue I want to address with you today and ask for your help. The issue is executive clemency, particularly commutation of sentence.  Commutation of sentence is an extraordinary remedy that is rarely used.  But it may be available in certain circumstances, including when an individual has a clean record in prison, does not present a threat to public safety, and has been sentenced under out-of-date laws that have since been changed, and are no longer seen as appropriate.

As I said earlier, our prisons include many low-level drug offenders.  Now, let there be no mistake, even the low-level drug offenders cause harm to people through their criminal actions and many need to be incarcerated. I don’t want to minimize the impact of their behavior.  Our prosecutors worked diligently, along with law enforcement agents, to collect evidence and charge these defendants, and then fairly and effectively obtained their convictions. T hey were properly held accountable for their criminal conduct. However, some of them, because of the operation of sentencing laws on the books at the time, received life sentences, or the equivalent of a life sentence, for limited conduct. For our criminal justice system to be effective, it needs to not only be fair; but it also must be perceived as being fair.  These older, stringent punishments, that are out of line with sentences imposed under today's laws, erode people’ s confidence in our criminal justice system....

[A]side from legislation, the President also has the ability to take executive action to positively impact the criminal justice system. A little over a month ago, the President commuted the sentences of 8 men and women who were sentenced under severe — and out of date — mandatory minimum sentencing laws....

But the President’s grant of commutations for these 8 individuals is only a first step. There is more to be done, because there are others like the eight who were granted clemency. There are more low-level, non-violent drug offenders who remain in prison, and who would likely have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of precisely the same offenses today. This is not fair, and it harms our criminal justice system.

To help correct this, we need to identify these individuals and get well-prepared petitions into the Department of Justice. It is the Department’s goal to find additional candidates, who are similarly situated to the eight granted clemency last year, and recommend them to the President for clemency consideration.

This is where you can help. We are looking to the New York State Bar Association and other bar associations to assist potential candidates for executive clemency. We envision that attorneys will assist potential candidates in assembling effective and appropriate commutation petitions — ones which provide a focused presentation of the information the Department and the President need to consider — in order to meaningfully consider clemency for similarly situated petitioners. You each can play a critical role in this process by providing a qualified petitioner — one who has a clean record in prison, does not present a threat to public safety, and who is facing a life or near-life sentence that is excessive under current law — with the opportunity to get a fresh start.  We anticipate that the petitioners potentially eligible for consideration would include: non-violent, low-level drug offenders who were not leaders of — nor had any significant ties to — large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels. We would also look for petitions from first-time offenders or offenders without an extensive criminal history.

January 30, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

"White House Seeks Drug Clemency Candidates" ... like Weldon Angelos and Chris Williams?

WeldonThe title of this post is drawn the headline of this notable new New York Times article, which includes these excerpts:

The Obama administration, in its effort to curtail severe penalties in low-level drug cases, is taking the unprecedented step of encouraging defense lawyers to suggest inmates whom the president might let out of prison early.

Speaking at a New York State Bar Association event Thursday, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole said the Justice Department wanted to send more names to White House for clemency consideration.  “This is where you can help,” he said, in remarks the Justice Department circulated in advance.  Prison officials will also spread the word among inmates that low-level, nonviolent drug offenders might be eligible to apply for clemency.  

The clemency drive is part of the administration’s effort to undo sentencing discrepancies that began during the crack epidemic decades ago. Offenses involving crack, which was disproportionately used in black communities, carried more severe penalties than crimes involving powder cocaine, which was usually favored by affluent white users....

“There are more low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who remain in prison, and who would likely have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of precisely the same offenses today,” Mr. Cole said. “This is not fair, and it harms our criminal justice system.”

Like lots of lousy crime and punishment reporting, this piece fails to highlight the important realities that (1) any and every federal defendant is "eligible to apply for clemency," but that the Obama Administration (like prior administrations) is historically disinclined to bother to consider seriously any of these applications, and (2) according to this official accounting, there are currently over 3,500 pending pardon and commutation applications at the White House right now.

I am pleaed that a DOJ official is now talking about defense lawyers suggesting inmates whom the president might let out of prison early, but I sense that defense lawyers are doing this a-plenty.  In addition, the US Sentencing Commission surely has a list of all the persons who would benefit from the FSA if it were made fully retroactive.   The White House already has plenty of information (and so many ways to readily find additional information) concerning who could and should sensibly be considered for clemency relief.  The problem is not information, but the courage to walk the walk (rather than just talk the talk) about correcting excessively harsh prison sentencing politicies and practices that are "not fair ... [and] harm our criminal justice system.”

As the rest of the title of this post is meant to highlight, good candidates for clemency are not only crack dealers.  Especially in light of recent reform of state marijuana laws, I think one can validly argue that there are constitutional problems with the sentences being served by federal marijuana offenders like Weldon Angelos and Chris Williams, both of who are current serving lengthy prison terms for doing essentially what is now being done by dozens of licensed marijuana  marijuana dealers every hour of every day in Denver.  Constitutional arguments aside, I think both should quickly go to the very top of the White House clemency list ASAP, especially if Prez Obama really believes what he says about marijuana being really no more harmful than alcohol.

January 30, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Clemency's consequences: "Clarence Aaron, almost free"

The title of this post is drawn from the headline of this notable new commentary  by Debra Saunders, who is described as the "San Francisco Chronicle's token conservative columnist." Because the piece is so moving (and pretty short), I am reprinting a lot of it:

Last month, President Obama did a good deed commuted the sentence of eight crack cocaine offenders, including Clarence Aaron, a first time nonviolent drug offender sentenced to life without parole.  Readers may have thought Aaron would be home by Christmas; instead the Dec. 18 order prompted the Bureau of Prisons to move Aaron to a minimum-security camp [and then to a halfway house]....  He is set for supervised release on April 17.

I had been a bit worried about what would happen to Clarence in prison as he awaited release.  At first, when he got the news, he didn’t tell other inmates. But it was on TV, and everyone found out.  Rather than stoke resentment, his commutation brought hope to inmates who had given up. “The atmosphere of the whole institution, it changed,” Clarence told me. “Everybody was happy… a lot of people walking around with that spark in the eye.”

When he got moved to a minimum-security camp, it was the same thing. “People knew I was coming to the camp before I knew I was coming to the camp.” And: “They were amazed to hear how God’s hand works.”

It was not easy in prison.  Clarence faced what was essentially a death sentence — life in prison until he died — among repeat felons serving shorter time. “The first day I got into prison,” Clarence told me, “I said, ‘What put me in this bad position?’”  His admittedly criminal actions started with money problems.  So he got a job in prison and started saving money.  He put together a plan for his future.  He studied the Bible, took college courses, followed the rules....

What does Clarence want to do first?  His “baby sister” Stephanie died of cancer in 2005. With his mother Linda, Clarence wants to visit her grave.  Later he wants to get a job, and get the documents he needs to obtain a driver’s license.

Where does he want to be in five years?  He wants a family and he wants to be established with a “meaningful career.”  Are you bitter? I ask.  He answers: “No, actually I’m not.  I’m happy.  This is a new day for me.  My Commander in Chief gave me a new life.”

January 14, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, January 06, 2014

Lamenting the "ghosts ... still serving time under [crack] sentences that would not have been imposed under the new law"

Linda Greenhouse has this notable new op-ed in the New York Times headlined "Crack Cocaine Limbo." Here are excerpts:

President Obama earned a rare moment of bipartisan acclaim last month when he commuted the sentences of eight long-serving federal prisoners. Their crack cocaine offenses had resulted in the harsh penalties mandated by a sentencing formula that Congress repudiated when it passed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. The old formula, under which possession of a quantity of crack earned the same sentence as possession of 100 times that quantity of powdered cocaine, was “now recognized as unjust,” the president said.

But there were ghosts at last month’s party: thousands of federal inmates still serving time under sentences that would not have been imposed under the new law. Most are black. As is widely recognized, crack has been the cocaine of choice for African-American users and dealers even as white offenders choose powder. The racially disparate impact of the old law, which dates from the crack-cocaine panic of the mid-1980s with its now-discredited theory that crack was many times more dangerous, made reform a civil rights priority.

These prisoners remain in drug-sentencing limbo. When Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the crack-to-powder sentencing ratio from 1:100 to 1:18, it was silent on retroactivity. The Supreme Court granted limited relief two years ago, ruling that those who committed their crimes before the law took effect in August 2010 but who were not sentenced until later could retroactively get the new law’s benefit....

Senators Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, and Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, introduced a bill last summer to authorize judges to grant relief to pre-2010 prisoners on a case-by-case basis. But the Smarter Sentencing Act, as its sponsors call it, has yet to move toward a vote....

Society made a judgment, expressed in a bipartisan political consensus, that disparities of this kind were irrational and racially inequitable. Passage of the Fair Sentencing Act was preceded by years of debate, including pleas by federal judges who hated what the law made them do. Gradually, insight emerged. Keeping a known and finite group of people locked in a system acknowledged to be irrational is irrationality itself.

January 6, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

"President Obama, the merciless?"

The title of this post is the headline given to this notable new CNN commentary piece authored by P.S. Ruckman Jr., who runs the always great Pardon Power blog.  Here are excerpts:

This month, one of the least merciful presidents in the history of the United States granted 13 pardons and eight commutations of sentence.  The grants moved President Barack Obama's overall mark past the administrations of John Adams (who served only one term), William H. Harrison (who died of pneumonia after serving only 30 days), James Garfield (who was fatally wounded by an assassin after serving only four months) and George Washington.

The New York Times complained that, when it came to the pardon power, there was just "no excuse" for Obama's "lack of compassion" and encouraged him to "do much more." The American Civil Liberties Union called the pardons "a step" and hoped the President would "continue to exercise his clemency powers."  Meanwhile, the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, lamented the "drought" of pardons in the Obama administration and called the recent grants "mingy and belated."  Conservative columnist Debra Saunders wrote that it was "about time" Obama acted, and even tossed out the possibility/hope that he might "do it again soon."...

No one is clamoring for violent criminals to be yanked out of prisons and tossed into the streets to wreak havoc on society.  No one is lusting for the considered judgment of judges and juries to be whimsically overturned by politicians leaving office and, in the process, sidestepping accountability.

But, increasingly, there is recognition that budgets are tight, and prisons are both overcrowded and expensive.  The recidivism of those who spend time in prisons and exit without anything like serious rehabilitation is also costly.  Congress' recent recognition of the failure (if not outright unjust nature) of sentencing laws appears, to many, as still yet another indicator that there is consensus regarding the status of the so-called war on drugs: It has not worked out very well....

The pardon power will always carry an inherent political "risk," because no one can perfectly predict the future behavior of recipients and everyone's judgment can be second-guessed, if not mischaracterized.  Informed persons know Mike Huckabee did not "pardon" Maurice Clemmons and Michael Dukakis did not "pardon" Willie Horton.  But, of course, executives cannot always survive political storms with the support and encouragement of informed persons.

Nonetheless, the Founding Fathers considered the pardon power an integral part of our system of separation of powers and checks and balances.  Its presence in the Constitution is premised on the notion that Congress and the Courts are not always perfect.  Anyone care to disagree? It simply follows that, if the pardon power is being neglected or abused, then government is not doing what it was meant to do.

Alexander Hamilton furthermore noted, in the Federalist Papers, that the criminal codes of nations have an almost natural tendency toward over-severity.  For that reason, he argued, there should be easy access to mercy. Yes, you read that right, "easy access," or, in other words, something very different than what is going on in the Obama administration.

The fortunate thing is, presidents and governors can very easily minimize the political "risk" of pardoning by granting pardons regularly, consistently, throughout terms, as opposed to, very questionably, at the "last minute." While Christmas pardons may make some feel warm and fuzzy, they also send a message that is more counterproductive than anything.  They seem to say mercy is an afterthought, or worse, a gift, that may or may not be deserved.

The fact of the matter is the majority of individual acts of executive clemency in our lifetime have been pardons, which simply restored the civil rights of the recipients.  No one was sprung from jail.  Violent criminals were not tossed into the streets.  Judges and juries were not overturned.  Recipients have typically committed minor offenses, many involving no incarceration whatsoever, and usually, many years if not decades before pardon.  FBI background checks documented they had integrated back into society as law-abiding productive members.  Their pardons were not "gifts" so much as they were well deserved recognition.

Have these pardons been high-wire maneuvers?  Have they required presidents to spend precious political capital?  Not at all.  Obama has granted 52 pardons to date.  There is a much better than average chance that readers cannot name a single recipient.  George W. Bush granted almost 200.

So, why can't Obama restore the civil rights of more applicants?  Why doesn't he?  There is no obvious answer to that question, save lack of care and concern.  Where is the President who said his religion teaches him the importance of redemption and second chances?  Where is the hope?

December 31, 2013 in Clemency and Pardons, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Astute commentary concerning meager crack clemency mercy finally shown by Prez Obama

In part because long-overdue and still meager grants of clemency by President Obama garnered so much MSM attention, I have not blogged much more about the Prez's decision to commute a few crack sentences last week (basics here).  But especially on this holy day, I thought it useful to provide links to a few subsequent piece of commentary that effectively highlight why a lot more use of the clemency power is still needed and justified for mercy to even be even a glimmer of hope for the tens of thousands of non-violent offenders still serving the harsh sentences that the federal criminal justice system too regularly hands out:

December 25, 2013 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Clemency christmas miracle?: Prez Obama communiting 8 pre-FSA crack sentences and granting 13 pardons

ALittleChristmasMiracleAs reported in this new article from the New York Times, "President Obama, expanding his push to curtail severe penalties for drug offenses, is expected on Thursday to commute the sentences of eight federal inmates who were convicted of crack cocaine offenses. Each inmate has been imprisoned for at least 15 years, and six were sentenced to life in prison."  Here is more about this interesting and exciting news:

It would be the first time retroactive relief was provided to a group of inmates who most likely would have received significantly shorter terms if they had been sentenced under current drug laws, sentencing rules and charging policies. Most of the eight would be released in 120 days.

In a statement prepared for release when the commutations are announced, Mr. Obama said that each of the eight men and women had been sentenced under what is now recognized as an “unfair system,” including under a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses that was significantly reduced by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2011.

“If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society,” Mr. Obama said. “Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year.”

The recipients include several high-profile inmates who have received news media attention as examples of the effects of earlier tough-on-crime drug sentencing policies, in which the quantities of crack involved sometimes resulted in severe punishments. Many of them were young at the time of their offense and were not accused of violence.

Clarence Aaron of Mobile, Ala., for example, was sentenced to three life terms in prison for his role in a 1993 drug deal, when he was 22. Mr. Aaron’s case has been taken up by congressional critics of draconian sentencing and by civil rights groups, and has received significant media attention. Last year, the Justice Department’s inspector general issued a report criticizing the department’s pardon office for mishandling his clemency petition.

Margaret Love, a former Justice Department pardon lawyer who represents Mr. Aaron, said she received a call informing her of the decision on Thursday morning and called her client, who along with his family was “very grateful.”

“He was absolutely overcome,” she said. “Actually, I was, too. He was in tears. This has been a long haul for him, 20 years. He just was speechless, and it’s very exciting.”

Mr. Obama, who has made relatively little use of his constitutional clemency powers to forgive offenses or reduce sentences, is also expected to pardon 13 people who completed their sentences long ago. Those cases involved mostly minor offenses that resulted in little or no prison time, in line with previous pardons he has issued.

But the eight commutations opened a major new front in the administration’s criminal justice policy intended to curb soaring taxpayer spending on prisons and to help correct what the administration has portrayed as unfairness in the justice system. Recipients also include Reynolds Wintersmith, of Rockford, Ill., who was sentenced in 1994 to life in prison for dealing crack when he was 17, and Stephanie George of Pensacola, Fla., who received a life sentence in 1997, when she was 27, for hiding a boyfriend’s stash of crack in a box in her house. In both cases, the sentencing judges criticized the mandatory sentences they were required to impose by federal law at the time, calling them unjust.

In December 2012, The New York Times published an article about Ms. George’s case and the larger rethinking of the social and economic costs of long prison terms for nonviolent offenders. Mr. Obama mentioned the article in an interview with Time magazine later that day and said he was considering asking officials about ways to do things “smarter.”

Around that time, a senior White House official said, Mr. Obama directed Kathryn Ruemmler, his White House counsel, to ask the Justice Department to examine pending clemency petitions to assess whether there were any in which current inmates serving long sentences would have benefited from subsequent changes to sentencing laws and policy. The deputy attorney general, James M. Cole, returned the eight cases with positive recommendations from the department about six weeks ago, the official said....

Legislation pending in Congress, including a bill co-sponsored by Senators Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, and Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, would make the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive for some offenders, and it would build into the system a process for inmates to apply to a judge for case-by-case review of whether a reduced sentence would be appropriate. The Obama administration supports that bill, the White House said, as a more orderly and regular way to ensure individualized analysis in addressing the broader inmate population.

According to the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, about 8,800 federal inmates sentenced for crack offenses before the Fair Sentencing Act would be eligible to apply for a reduced sentence were the bill to become law. “Commuting the sentences of these eight Americans is an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness,” Mr. Obama said. “But it must not be the last. In the new year, lawmakers should act on the kinds of bipartisan sentencing reform measures already working their way through Congress. Together, we must ensure that our taxpayer dollars are spent wisely, and that our justice system keeps its basic promise of equal treatment for all.”

I am quite pleased Prez Obama is finally, finally, finally using his constitutional clemency powers in a truly consequential and meaningful way, and I am especially pleased that there are now eight more defendants (and families) who get some relief from the unfair 100-1 pre-FSA crack sentences that nobody ever seeks to defend substantively. However, the numbers reported above highlight that for every new bit of post-FSA fairness achieved by these commutations, a thousand other defendants (and families) must continue to live with the consequences of a reform that has been interpreted only to prevent future injustices and not fix past ones.

More broadly, though I do not want to turn a praiseworthy act by Prez Obama into an excuse for more criticism, there is a cynical voice in my head that is not only eager to fault the limited reach of this new round of clemency, but also its timing. Perhaps intentionally, these grants could (and perhaps should) be marginalized as just a holiday tradition, not as a bold statement of executive priorities. Even more worrisomely, as there is on-going talk of statutory sentencing reforms in Congress, these grants might provide some basis for opponents of broader reforms to contend that truly troublesome cases can and should be just handled and remedied by the executive branch.

Better summing up my cynicism is a response to this news from Professor Mark Osler: "Good news... But just one lifeboat off the titanic. With no structural change, the ship is still sinking."

December 19, 2013 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Friday, December 13, 2013

How can and should Ohio's justice system deal with merciful elderly aggravated murderer?

John-Wise-web_20120807105809_640_480I suspect many folks engaged in debates over the wisdom of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions at least feel comfortable with the suggestion that persons convicted of first-degree murder ought to always be mandated to serve at least decades in prison.  Indeed, many folks who advocate for the abolition of the death penalty do so by suggesting mandatory LWOP is the right alternative sentence for those deemed the worst kinds of killers under state homicide laws.  Though lots of folks (myself included) are troubled by mandatory long prison terms for lower-level drug or gun offenses, lots of folks (myself included) are much less troubled by some mandatory prison requirements in the sentencing rules for how the justice system responds to the very worst intentional violent crimes.

But the provocative question in the title of this post is prompted by a sentencing story developing today in Ohio, which is explained in this AP report headlined "John Wise, attorney to seek clemency from governor in wife's hospital killing." Here are the details:

A man convicted of fatally shooting his ailing wife in her hospital bed will seek clemency from the governor after his sentencing Friday, even if the judge follows a prosecutor's recommendation for a lighter punishment because of the unique circumstances of the case.

John Wise, 68, has said he shot his debilitated wife out of love in August 2012 after she suffered an aneurysm and appeared to be in pain at an Akron hospital. Mercy is not a defense to a murder charge in Ohio. Wise, of Massillon, was convicted on charges including aggravated murder with a firearm specification, which could carry a life sentence.

Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh called Wise's actions illegal and dangerous but said the case warrants sentencing leniency.  She has recommended that Wise be sentenced on a lesser crime and get a six-year term. "In light of the unique facts of this case, a shorter prison sentence is just," she said in a statement.

Whatever the sentence, the defense will pursue clemency from the governor and "will be seeking public support from those who sympathize with John and this situation," defense attorney Paul Adamson said in an email.

Judge Mary Margaret Rowlands in Akron has told attorneys the sentence must fit within legal limits. Neither side found previous case law to support the prosecutor's suggestion that the judge could sentence Wise to six years behind bars for manslaughter, a charge that wasn't among the counts against him but is considered a lesser included offense, Adamson said.

With charges merged for sentencing, it's also possible Wise could get a six-year term if the prosecution asks the judge to sentence him for felonious assault, one of three charges on which he was convicted. April Wiesner, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor, wouldn't say Thursday whether the office intends to pursue that option.

As my first-year Crim Law students know well, "Aggravated Murder" is Ohio's term for first-degree murder and Ohio sentencing law expressly provides that "Whoever is convicted of or pleads guilty to aggravated murder in violation of section 2903.01 of the Revised Code shall suffer death or be imprisoned for life...." Consequently, I am not aware of a sound legal basis for the prosecutor or judge in this case to recommend or impose any sentence other than an LWOP term for the aggravated murder charge. I surmise that the local prosecutor here may be asking for the judge not to sentence on that charge or to have it reduced or dismissed in some way before sentencing.

Ironically, I think the defendant and his lawyer here might want the sentencing judge to feel compelled to impose LWOP and thereby heighten the argument for some kind of clemency relief from Gov. Kasich. If the defendant here gets "only" six years in prison, I suspect it would be much easier for the Governor to leave such a sentence in place and conclude that justice for this murderer has already been tempered by mercy.  Indeed, I am inclined to think that the prosecutor here has decided only to seek a six-year prison term for an aggravated murderer because she hope to bring a function end to this case at sentencing today rather than have to deal with a compelling clemency case if John Wise were to get an LWOP sentence.

UPDATE:  This new AP report indicates that this aggravated murderer somehow received a sentence of only six years' imprisonment, as prosecutors had recommended:

An Ohio man convicted of fatally shooting his ailing wife in her hospital bed was sentenced Friday to six years in prison and plans to seek clemency from the governor....

The sentence issued by Summit County Court of Common Pleas Judge Mary Margaret Rowlands was in line with prosecutors' recommendation that the Massillon man receive a lighter punishment than the minimum 23 years on his most serious conviction, an aggravated murder count.

Holding a cane and wearing a striped jail outfit, Wise remained seated during the hearing. He made a brief statement, choking up as he apologized to his family and his son. He also thanked the prosecutors and the court.

Prosecutors said the case warranted leniency, but they emphasized that Wise's actions were illegal. "It is not our intention to minimize what happened. You cannot bring a loaded gun into a hospital and shoot someone," Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh said in a statement after the sentencing.

In court, Assistant Prosecutor Brian LoPrinzi told the judge: "We believe that although his motive may have been pure, he was wrong."

Wise's attorney, Paul Adamson, said they will pursue clemency from the governor and create an online petition for supporters to sign. He called the shooting "an aberrational act" for Wise. "I've never represented a finer man," Adamson told the judge. The prosecutor's office said it would oppose any reduction in Wise's punishment.

Among those at the sentencing was Liz Flaker, one of the jurors who convicted Wise after he pursued an insanity defense. She said the jurors, who deliberated for several hours, took two votes. The first was 9-3 in favor of conviction; the second was unanimous. "There was really no split, per se, but I think there were a couple of people that kind of wavered on ... thinking was he insane or was he not insane," Flaker said. "I think the way the law was written for the state of Ohio is a little bit hazy."

Prosecutors had recommended that Wise be sentenced to six years for manslaughter, a charge that wasn't among the counts against him but is considered a lesser included offense. After neither side found previous case law to support that unusual suggestion, the prosecution instead asked the judge to sentence Wise under his felonious assault conviction with a firearms specification, and the judge did so. Wise also was convicted of aggravated murder with a firearm specification and murder, which could have led to a life sentence.

Police say Wise calmly walked into the hospital room on Aug. 4, 2012, and shot his wife of 45 years at her bedside. She died the next day. Wise told police he intended to kill himself, too, but the weapon jammed.

December 13, 2013 in Clemency and Pardons, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

"20% Of Obama’s Pardons Have Gone To Turkeys"

Presidential-pardonsThe title of this post is the fitting headline devised by Andrew Sullivan for this post from The Dish. The post links to this longer lament of the entire turkey pardon ritual by Brad Plummer, which winds down this way:

It's a mockery of the presidential pardon, which is an all-too neglected issue. Maybe this isn't surprising, since the turkey pardon was basically invented as a way of mocking presidential pardons. Still, it's worth mentioning.

After tomorrow, Obama will have "pardoned" 10 turkeys in all (turkeys that, as best we can tell, haven't actually committed any crimes). By contrast, he will have only pardoned or commuted the sentences of 40 actual living human beings.

The latter is a record low for modern-day presidents.  At the same point in his presidency, Ronald Reagan had pardoned 313 people.  Harry Truman had pardoned 1,537 people.

Last year, Sam Morrison, an official who spent 13 years in the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney before retiring in 2010, described the prevailing attitude toward pardons this way: "They tend to view any grant of clemency not as a good thing, as a criminal justice success story, but almost as a defeat — that you're taking away something from what some good prosecutor achieved." (The Justice Department disputed this characterization.)

Over at National Journal, Ron Fournier pointed out that, at the bare minimum, Obama could grant clemency to all the people still serving extra time in prison under the old crack-sentencing guidelines — guidelines that Obama himself opposed as excessive and which Congress reduced for all new prisoners in 2010.  So far, however, there's no sign that the White House will do this.

Of course, comparing Prez Obama's pitiful clemency record to the records of prior presidents like Ronald Reagan or Harry Truman is quite unfair — to Reagan and Truman. The federal criminal justice system and the federal prison population (not to mention the negative consequences of a federal record) were all much, much smaller when Reagan and Truman were President, and thus the number of federal offenders and prisoners formally seeking clemency was much lower. Indeed, these official clemency statistics reveal that Prez Obama gets about 10 times as many formal commutation requests than Prez Reagan got each year (which, is not so surprising given that the federal prison population is nearly 10 times larger now than it was when Reagan first became President).

Indeed, if we focus on only commutations, President Obama's record looks even more revolting.  As Jacob Sullum notes here at Forbes, Obama has only commuted a single federal prison sentence.  Thus, as the Forbes headline states, "Judging From His Clemency Record, Obama Likes Turkeys 10 Times As Much As People."

November 27, 2013 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Can Prez Obama be trusted to live up to clemency reform promises?

Perhaps the only thing I have grown to dislike about Thanksgiving in modern times is all the pomp and circumstance (and the lame-stream media's attention) given to the silly tradition of having the President pardon a turkey.  Regular readers kow that this silly tradition is distinctly galling of late given the Obama Administration's truly disgraceful record on granting clemency to real humans rather than tasty animals.  Fortunately, this new article at The National Journal is covering the real story with reference to the well-known case of (my former client) Weldon Angelos under the headline "Will Obama Pardon This Man (and Many Like Him) or Just a Turkey?: The White House is considering clemency reform, sources say, after compiling a historically unmerciful record." Here is how this piece starts:

President Obama on Wednesday will pardon a Thanksgiving turkey. Which makes this a good time to ask why a liberal constitutional lawyer who bemoans the bloated prison system and proclaims that "life is all about second chances" is -- on the matter of clemency -- one of the stingiest presidents in U.S. history? Put another way: If a turkey deserves a second chance, why not Weldon Angelos?

Angelos was sentenced in 2004 to 55 years' imprisonment for possessing a firearm in connection with selling small amounts of marijuana. He didn't brandish or use a weapon, nor did he hurt or threaten to injure anybody. And yet the father of young children and an aspiring music producer was given an effective life sentence because of a draconian federal law requiring mandatory minimum sentences.

Even the judge on his case, Paul G. Cassell, found the sentence "cruel and irrational." While urging Obama to reduce Angelos's punishment, the Republican-appointed judge wrote, "While I must impose the unjust sentence, our system of separated powers provides a means of redress."

More than almost any president, Obama has failed to exercise that "means of redress" inscribed in the Constitution, the presidential clemency. But that may be changing. The White House is considering a broad range of clemency reforms.

One reason I am among the majority of Americans who now, according to the latest polling, thinks is Obama is not honest or trustworthy is because we have been hearing from this White House vague talk about clemency reform for years now and yet have not seen one whit of action on this front despite mountains of evidence (and lots of talk from Attorney General Holder) that reform is badly needed and long overdue.

Long-time readers likely recall that I blogged and complained a lot about these issues during the first few years of the Obama Administration when I still believed that this President meant what he said and said what he meant. But in recent years I have concluded that this Prez is in this context happy and generally eager to talk the talk without ever walking the walk.

I certainly will continue to hold out hope that we may eventually see this White House develop "a broad range of clemency reforms," and I remain (naively?) optimistic that the Obama team will do at least a little something (at least for show) on this front come mid-November 2014 or 2016. But I have long been tired of the talk and too long been waiting for action to really from the current Administration, and I instead like spending my time imagining what a President Rand Paul might be willing and able to do with the historic constitutional power of clemency.

Some recent and a few older posts concerning federal clemency practices:

November 26, 2013 in Clemency and Pardons, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Some early reactions to Gov. Kasich's surprise decision delay execution to explore organ donation

Ohio Gov. John Kasich's decision to postponed today's scheduled execution of child-killer Ronald Phillips in order to determine if he can donate his organs prior to (or during?) his execution (reported here), has already, not surprisingly, generated considerable attention and has prompted a number of follow-up questions.  Here is some of the early buzzing and queries drawn from today's media headlines:

My own questions include whether (or really when) all the other condemned persons on on Ohio's death row will also offer to donate their organs if (and perhaps only when) their other legal appeal fail and they are only days from a scheduled execution.

Recent related post:

November 14, 2013 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

"Misconstruing Graham & Miller"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new piece by Cara Drinan now up at SSRN. Here is the abstract:

In the last three years the Supreme Court has decreed a sea change in its juvenile Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. In particular, in its Graham v. Florida and Miller v. Alabama rulings, the Court struck down a majority of the states’ juvenile sentencing laws, outlawing life without parole for juveniles who commit non-homicide offenses and mandating individualized sentencing for those children who commit even the most serious crimes.  An examination of state laws and sentencing practices, however, suggests that the Graham and Miller rulings have fallen on deaf ears.  After briefly describing what these two decisions required of the states, in this Essay, I outline the many ways in which state actors have failed to comply with the Court’s mandate. Finally, I map out a path for future compliance that relies heavily upon the strength and agility of the executive branch.

November 14, 2013 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Clemency and Pardons, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

"Kasich postpones execution of inmate who wants to donate organs"

The title of this post is the headline of this breaking news story reporting some surprising news coming from Ohio this afternoon.  Here are details:

In an unprecedented move, Gov. John Kasich has postponed the execution of Akron child-killer Ronald Phillips scheduled for Thursday to determine if his organs can be harvested. It has been rescheduled for July 2, 2014.

In a statement released this afternoon, Kasich halted Phillips’ execution “so that medical experts can assess whether or not Phillips’ non-vital organs or tissues can be donated to his mother or possibly others.”

“Ronald Phillips committed a heinous crime for which he will face the death penalty. I realize this is a bit of uncharted territory for Ohio, but if another life can be saved by his willingness to donate his organs and tissues then we should allow for that to happen,” Kasich said.

Phillips, 40, was sentenced to die for the 1993 beating, rape and murder of three-year-old Sheila Marie Evans, the daughter of his girlfriend at the time. The governor said if Phillips “is found to be a viable donor to his mother or possibly others awaiting transplants of non-vital organs, such as kidneys, the procedures would be performed and then he would be returned to Death Row to await his new execution date.”

Phillips asked earlier this week if he could donate his organs to his mother or others, but the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction rejected his request.

Wowsa. I have to catch my breath and think about this a lot before I am sure how to react. While I do so, I look forward to hearing reactions from both the pro and anti death penalty crowd in the comments.

November 13, 2013 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Monday, November 11, 2013

How about a few clemency grants, Prez Obama, to really honor vets in need on Veterans Day?

On Veterans Day, I always find myself thinking about veterans who, after serving our country in the military and thereby supporting of our nation's commitment to liberty and freedom, return home and discover the hard way that these constitutional values are not always paramount in our modern criminal justice systems.  This Daily Beast piece, headlined "From PTSD to Prison: Why Veterans Become Criminals," highlights that there are now probably hundreds of thousand of veterans in America's prison and jails:

In 2008 the RAND Corporation surveyed a group of veterans six months after their return. It found that almost one in five had either PTSD or major depression. In recent years rates of substance abuse and suicide among veterans have also ticked steadily upward.

A certain number of veterans suffering from mental-health issues will, invariably, end up in jail or prison. After Vietnam, the number of inmates with prior military service rose steadily until reaching a peak in 1985, when more than one in five was a veteran. By 1988, more than half of all Vietnam veterans diagnosed with PTSD reported that they had been arrested; more than one third reported they had been arrested multiple times. Today veterans advocates fear that, unless they receive proper support, a similar epidemic may befall soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

No one knows how many veterans are incarcerated, but the most recent survey, compiled by the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2004, found that nearly one in 10 inmates in U.S. jails had prior military service. Extrapolated to the total prison population, this means that approximately 200,000 veterans were behind bars.

As the title of this post highlights, I would like to see President Obama go beyond the usual symbolic gestures and use his historic clemency powers to salute at least a few veterans in federal prison with commutations that would create just a bit more physical liberty and honor a few more veterans with pardons that would free offenders from the enduring collateral consequences of a federal criminal conviction.

This effective recent op-ed by Mark Osler, headlined "Clemency is a task for people and institutions of faith; It should also be a task for the president, but he seems unwilling or unable to use his powers," starts by noting why, sadly, I am not expecting the President to step up to the clemency plate today or anytime soon:

President Obama is, by a wide margin, the stingiest president in modern times in his use of the pardon power.  He seems unwilling or unable to use this simple constitutional tool, even as both conservative and progressive commentators are criticizing the federal government’s overincarceration of nonviolent offenders.  A simple way to alleviate that problem would be to commute (shorten) the most egregious of these sentences using the pardon power.

Some recent and a few older posts concerning federal clemency practices:

November 11, 2013 in Clemency and Pardons, Offender Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Lethal uncertainty: Mizzou Gov postpones execution due to novel drug concerns

As reported in this AP piece, headlined "Missouri gov. halts 1st US execution by propofol," the Show Me State has decided to delay its efforts to show whether a new drug might be used successful to executed condemned murderers. Here are the details:

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon on Friday halted what was to have been the first U.S. execution to use the popular anesthetic propofol, following threats from the European Union to limit the drug's export if it were used for that purpose.

Nixon also ordered the Missouri Department of Corrections to come up with a different way to perform lethal injections without propofol, the leading anesthetic used in America's hospitals and clinics. Nearly 90 percent of the nation's propofol is imported from Europe.

"As governor, my interest is in making sure justice is served and public health is protected," Nixon said in a statement. "That is why, in light of the issues that have been raised surrounding the use of propofol in executions, I have directed the Department of Corrections that the execution of Allen Nicklasson, as set for October 23, will not proceed."

Nixon, a Democrat and staunch supporter of the death penalty, did not specifically mention the EU threat in his brief statement. Nixon was Missouri's longtime attorney general before he was first elected governor in 2008. During his 16 years as attorney general, 59 men were executed.

The leading propofol maker, Germany-based Fresenius Kabi, and anesthesiologists had warned of a possible propofol shortage that could impact millions of Americans if any executions took place.

In a statement, Fresenius Kabi applauded Nixon's move. "This is a decision that will be welcomed by the medical community and patients nationwide who were deeply concerned about the potential of a drug shortage," said John Ducker, CEO of Fresenius Kabi USA. The company said propofol is administered about 50 million times annually in the U.S....

Drug makers in recent years have stopped selling potentially lethal pharmaceuticals to prisons and corrections departments because they don't want them used in executions. That has left the nearly three dozen death penalty states, including Missouri, scrambling for alternatives. Missouri altered its execution protocol in April 2012 to use propofol. The drug gained some level of infamy in 2009 when pop star Michael Jackson died of a propofol overdose.

Nixon's decision also leaves uncertain the execution scheduled for next month for another convicted killer, Joseph Franklin. Soon after Nixon's announcement, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster filed a motion with the Missouri Supreme Court to vacate the Oct. 23 execution date for Nicklasson and to set a new date "soon after" Franklin's execution date of Nov. 20. A spokeswoman for Koster declined comment.

In addition to concerns raised about how the EU would respond to the execution, Missouri's decision to use propofol prompted a lawsuit filed on behalf of nearly two dozen death row inmates claiming use of the unproven execution drug could result in pain and suffering for the condemned man.

Koster, a Democrat, and Republican Missouri state Sen. Kurt Schaefer have suggested that if the state can't execute by lethal injection it consider going back to the gas chamber, something that hasn't been used since the 1960s. Missouri no longer has a gas chamber but Schaefer recently wrote to Nixon, urging him to consider funding construction of a new one in his next fiscal year budget.

The corrections department on Wednesday agreed to return a shipment of propofol to Louisiana-based distributor Morris & Dickson Co. The company distributes propofol made in Europe by Fresenius Kabi and told the corrections department in November that its shipment was a mistake. Corrections spokesman David Owen said Wednesday that Missouri had a remaining supply of propofol, all of it domestically made. But Fresenius Kabi spokesman Matt Kuhn said even the use of domestically produced propofol in an execution could prompt the EU to impose export controls.

Meanwhile, Mercer Medical, a Kent, Wash.-based third-party vendor, said Friday in a news release it has asked for the 400 milliliters of propofol it sold to the corrections department in June be returned at the request of the manufacturer, Hospira. The website for Hospira says it is headquartered in Lake Forest, Ill....

Nicklasson's attorney, Jennifer Herndon, said she was pleased with the delay, but expects the state to move quickly to revise its execution protocol. "They're pretty anxious to execute people so I would think that the state would put something forward sooner rather than later," Herndon said.

October 13, 2013 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Thursday, September 19, 2013

"Rethinking the Timing of Capital Clemency"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Adam Gershowitz which now is available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

This article reviews every capital clemency over the last four decades.  It demonstrates that in the majority of cases, the reason for commutation was known at the conclusion of direct appeals — years or even decades before the habeas process was concluded.  Yet, when governors or pardon boards actually commuted the death sentences, they typically waited until the eve of execution, with only days or hours to spare.

Leaving clemency until the last minute sometimes leads to many years of unnecessary state and federal habeas corpus litigation.  This article documents nearly 300 years of wasted habeas corpus review.  Additionally, last-minute commutations harm the victims’ families by delaying closure for years.  And placing clemency at the very end of the process creates an information cascade that makes it harder for governors to grant clemency in meritorious cases.  This article therefore argues for a threshold clemency determination in capital cases at the conclusion of direct review, before any state or federal habeas litigation has begun.

September 19, 2013 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

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

The title of this post is the title of this quite-interesting looking empirical piece by Matthew Heise now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

Conventional wisdom notes persistent regional differences in the death penalty’s application with southern states’ appetite for capital punishment exceeding that of non-southern states. Scholars analyzing the distributions of death sentences and state executions find a geographic influence. Less explored, however, is a possible regional difference in the distribution of executive clemency even though clemency is an integral component of criminal justice system that includes capital punishment. If geography influences the distribution of the death penalty, geography should also influence the distribution of clemency.

Data, however, reveal some surprises. Using a recently-released data set of all state death row inmates from 1973-2010, this paper considers whether clemency is exercised in southern and non-southern states in systematically different ways. No statistically significant differences exist between southern and non-southern states when it comes to clemency, even though southern states were more prone to execute and less prone to disturb death sentences through reversal on appeal than northern states. When it comes to the influence of geography in the death penalty context, the findings provide mixed support and convey a complicated picture.

September 11, 2013 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, August 31, 2013

"Clemency, Parole, Good-Time Credits, and Crowded Prisons: Reconsidering Early Release"

The title of this post is the title of this paper recently posted to SSRN and authored by Paul Larkin Jr.  Here is the abstract:

For most of our history, clemency, parole, and good-time credits have offered prisoners an opportunity for early release.  Over the last 40 years, however, clemency has fallen into disuse, and many jurisdictions have repealed their parole laws in favor of determinate sentencing.  Given our increasingly crowded prisons and expanding correctional budgets, governments are beginning to rethink our approach to punishment.  It is unlikely that clemency or parole will come back into fashion any time soon, however, or that severe sentencing laws will quickly disappear.

But the federal and state governments have continued to use good-time credits as a means of rewarding inmates for positive, in-prison behavior, and legislators may believe that expanding the current good-time laws is the best solution. That approach is reasonable as a policy matter and sellable as a political matter because prisoners must earn good time credits. We therefore may see legislators seek to address prison overcrowding through an expanded good-time system.

August 31, 2013 in Clemency and Pardons, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (26) | TrackBack