Wednesday, January 27, 2016

New York Times editorial highlights "Mr. Obama’s Pardon Problem"

Today's New York Times includes this notable editorial about the Obama Administration's recent clemency efforts and the need to revamp the entire way in which federal clemency has been approached in modern times. Here is how it begins:

The sudden resignation of the federal pardon attorney, Deborah Leff, an Obama appointee, is the latest evidence that until the clemency process is pried from the grip of the Justice Department, it will remain broken.

The pardon attorney’s office, which operates out of the Justice Department, is responsible for reviewing thousands of petitions for pardons and sentence commutations and for making recommendations for clemency to the president. The president’s power to grant mercy in these cases is nearly unlimited, but for most of his time in office, Mr. Obama, like his recent predecessors, has exercised this power only rarely.

Since 2014, Mr. Obama has focused more attention on this issue. To overhaul the notoriously backlogged pardon office, he announced new standards encouraging tens of thousands of federal prisoners to request reductions of their inordinately long drug sentences.  And he hired Ms. Leff to replace Ronald Rodgers, whose incompetent tenure included a finding by the Justice Department’s inspector general that in 2008 he hid information from President George W. Bush in recommending the denial of a clemency petition.

Ms. Leff’s appointment was a promising sign that the dysfunctional pardon process would be repaired.  But her tenure didn’t last long.  On Jan. 15, barely one year after she was formally appointed, she abruptly announced she would step down at the end of this month, saying only that the work of the office should “move ahead expeditiously and expand.”

As she leaves, more than 10,000 clemency petitions are waiting for review. While the pardon office, which has 10 lawyers, has remained virtually the same size it was 20 years ago, the number of petitions has increased almost sevenfold. The department recently announced plans to hire 16 new lawyers, but this would still be far below the number needed to process the backlog.

The lack of resources is only part of a deeper problem, which is that the pardon office is caught in an incurable institutional conflict.  The deputy attorney general has authority to review the pardon attorney’s clemency recommendations, and federal prosecutors generally have little interest in revisiting or undoing the department’s convictions.  As one former pardon attorney put it, the prosecutors are “determinedly and irreconcilably hostile” to clemency.

January 27, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 21, 2016

"Why hasn’t President Obama granted clemency to a single Latina inmate?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this recent Fusion commentary authored by Jason Hernandez. Here are excerpts from his commentary:

Last month, President Obama announced a new series of pardons and commutations for federal prisoners, just like he has for the past three years, just before the First Family leaves for their Christmas vacation.  Since he took office, Obama has commuted the sentences of 184 federal prisoners, many of whom were sentenced to life without parole for nonviolent drug crimes....

On December 19, 2013, I was one of the people he chose. At the time, I was serving a life sentence for a nonviolent drug crime.  In total, I spent 17 years behind bars for a crime committed at age 21.  I was the first Latino man to receive clemency from President Obama, and I will be eternally grateful that he gave me a second chance.

But I’m baffled that of the 184 individuals who have received his mercy in the last seven years, not one has been a Latina.  Latinas make up about 17% of the U.S. population and 33% of the women’s federal prison population.  They are three times more likely to go to prison than white women.  And the number of Latinos sent to federal prison nearly quadrupled between 1991 and 2007.  There’s no shortage of worthy Latina candidates for a presidential clemency.

Take, for example, Elisa Castillo, a 56-year-old grandmother who unknowingly smuggled cocaine on tour buses from Mexico to Houston.  Because she had no information to negotiate a plea bargain with, she was indicted for conspiracy, went to trial, and received life without parole.

Then there’s Rita Becerra, who was arrested because of her involvement with her boyfriend’s drug dealing.  Rita cooperated with the prosecution against her boyfriend, but because he cooperated too, he got just nine years and Rita 27 years — she has been in prison over 20 years.  And Josephine Ledezma, who in 1992 was sentenced to life without parole for a nonviolent drug crime: she is now 57 and has been in prison 24 years.

President Obama has urged members of Congress to reform our broken criminal justice system and spoken eloquently about racial disparities in sentencing.  One might want to blame him for failing to help incarcerated Latinas like these women, but the Latino community shoulders the blame as well.  To my great disappointment, Latino groups like the National Council of La Raza or LULAC have not only remained silent about the president’s failure to commute the sentence of a single Latina, but also haven’t done enough to highlight the abuses of the War on Drugs more generally. This is a disgrace.

The War on Drugs should be called the War on Minorities.  Harsh drug sentencing has deeply hurt the black and hispanic communities, especially our children.  Studies show our drug policies have done more harm than good by breaking up families and decimating communities of color.  Brown lives matter, too.

January 21, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Disconcerting backstory apparently explains quick departure of DOJ's Pardon Attorney

I had seen news late last week that the Justice Department’s relatively new pardon attorney had announced she was resigning her post, and this new Washington Post article about the departure provides some of the backstory. The piece is headlined "Attorney overseeing clemency initiative leaving in frustration," and here are excerpts:

The Justice Department’s pardon attorney — charged with overseeing the review of clemency petitions from federal inmates — is stepping down at the end of January because she is frustrated by a lack of resources for one of the president’s centerpiece criminal-justice initiatives, according to people close to her.

The departure of Deborah Leff, who has been in her role since 2014, comes as the Obama administration struggles to process a backlog of more than 9,000 pending clemency petitions. As the president approaches the end of his second term, time is running out for his high-profile effort to offer clemency to certain nonviolent federal drug offenders harshly sentenced in the nation’s war on drugs.  

The Justice Department said it is confident that Leff’s departure will not delay the administration’s clemency initiative, and it hopes to find a replacement quickly.  Justice spokeswoman Emily Pierce also said the department is asking Congress to more than double the number of lawyers assigned to the pardon office, from 22 to 46.

Leff could not be reached for comment but released a statement saying that she has known President Obama for more than 20 years and that she thinks “his commitment to reinvigorating the clemency process — and the promise that holds for justice — can change the lives of a great many deserving people.” But Leff added: “It is essential that this groundbreaking effort move ahead expeditiously and expand.”

A former trial lawyer, senior television producer and president of the Public Welfare Foundation, Leff was highly respected by sentencing reform advocates. “She never got the staffing she needed,” said one friend. “She was very frustrated.” Other people close to Leff said that she was passionate about making the clemency initiative work but had been unhappy for quite some time about not having enough resources.

Obama has commuted the sentences of 184 federal inmates. White House Counsel Neil Eg­gleston said in December that Obama has commuted the sentences of more individuals than the past five presidents combined and that the president will grant more commutations and pardons this year. But advocates of sentencing reform are disappointed that the clemency process has not moved more quickly and that more of the thousands who have submitted clemency petitions have not had their sentences commuted....

A senior Justice Department official said that the clemency initiative is of the highest priority for the department and that those involved have been working tirelessly to move petitions along as quickly as they can with a limited budget and legal restrictions....

“To lose the head of the office that’s running the clemency initiative is concerning,” said Kevin Ring, vice president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “We hope she is replaced by someone who is as dedicated, smart, passionate and committed as she was to getting these petitions through.”

Pierce said the department has been constrained by law in terms of how many resources and how much of its budget it can devote to the clemency initiative. Pierce said the department has “provided additional funds to the pardon office within the confines of our budget and has detailed dozens of additional full- and part-time attorneys over the course of the clemency initiative.” Despite the constraints, a Justice official said that lawyers are reading each of the thousands of clemency petitions that have been submitted and have prioritized the ones that best meet the new criteria set out by the administration....

Justice officials said that they expect to name a replacement before Leff leaves Jan. 31. “A new pardon attorney will be named in the near future and we expect the work of the pardon attorney’s office to continue apace as we identify and vet potential candidates for the president’s clemency priorities,” Pierce said. “The Justice Department is dedicated to the goals of the clemency initiative and is steadfastly committed to doing all it can to ensure fairness in the criminal-justice system.”

I find this story disconcerting because it seems to me just another manifestation of the problems Prez Obama has himself created by having ignored his clemency powers during his first six years in office and then deciding he should try to make up for lost time on his way out of the Oval Office.  I had (foolishly?) hoped Prez Obama would have been a lot smarter in this important space in the wake of the ugly last-day clemency doings of Prez Clinton back in 2001 and especially with out-going Prez Bush telling in-coming Prez Obama on Inauguration Day 2009 that clemency matters should garner his attention.  But here we are seeing, yet again, that by ignoring these matters until essentially the last minute, Prez Obama's record in this space will be marked by various missteps and frustrations (although I remain hopeful that even his "last-minute" efforts will still result in a notable improvement on the work of many of his recent predecessors in the clemency arena).

January 20, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Deep dive into notable state-level clemency developments

This notable new Stateline piece, headlined "Move Is on to Make End-of-Year Pardons Less Random," reports on some notable new developments in state clemency practices. I recommend a full read of the piece for clemency fans, and here are excerpts:

Barry Beach in Montana got one.  Gabrielle Cecil in Louisville got one.  And actor Robert Downey Jr. in California got one.  They won the holiday-time clemency lottery and, in the past two months, had their sentences commuted or pardoned.

Beach’s 100-year sentence for murder was shortened to time served, 30 years.  Cecil’s life sentence for killing her abusive partner was forgiven.  And “Iron Man” actor Downey, whose felony drug conviction in the 1990s led to nearly a year in jail, got a pardon for good behavior.  They’re the lucky ones.

Only 15 states, including Arkansas and California, grant frequent and regular pardons, to more than 30 percent of applicants, according to the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, a nonprofit that promotes public discussion of the lasting effects of conviction.  The largest group — 21 states, including Kansas, Kentucky and Tennessee, as well as the District of Columbia —provided few or no pardons in the past 20 years.  Nine states have a regular pardon process but grant clemency to just a small percentage of those who ask for it, and five states — Louisiana, Maine, New Mexico, Ohio and Wisconsin — grant pardons only infrequently, depending on the governor.

But several governors and state legislatures have moved in recent months to make the clemency process easier and pardons more frequent, reflecting a growing consensus that harsh mandatory minimum sentences have left too many Americans behind bars.  “I do see a wave of mercy rolling across the country,” said P.S. Ruckman Jr., who teaches political science and runs a clemency blog, pardonpower.com.  “Over the last 10 years, governors erred on the side of caution, and did nothing” to grant clemency or pardons, Ruckman said.  “Increasingly that mindset is changing.”...

Yet despite the flurry of activity, the use of clemency and pardons by governors to ease long sentences or restore civil rights to people who have served their time remains largely a matter of chance.  Your odds of getting a pardon or having your sentence commuted to, for example, time served, depend completely on what state you’re convicted in and, most importantly, on who the governor is.  “It’s wholly dependent on what the governor wants to do, who the governor is, and how safe, politically, the governor feels,” said former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich, a Republican who granted 228 pardons during his time in office.

Ehrlich now campaigns for regular clemency through a partnership with the law school at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., where students help inmates prepare clemency petitions to governors or the president.  “It’s all subjective factors. They should not play into it, but they do,” Ehrlich said....

In the states, sporadic changes in legislation have begun to streamline the process for getting clemency, and some high-profile governors are starting to address the issue:

  • New York: Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in October he would create a “clemency project” to identify prisoners who qualify for clemency, and he commuted sentences for two people and pardoned two others. The New York Times called it a "drastic turnaround" in a state whose governors have granted few pardons over the past four decades.
  • Illinois: In November, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner granted clemency to 10 people while denying 200 other requests. But the governor said he now is working through a backlog of 1,200 petitions from previous administrations.
  • Montana: A new law took effect Oct. 1 that lets the governor grant clemency, even if the state board of pardons and paroles denies it. That allowed Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock to cut the 100-year murder sentence of Barry Beach to time served.

Some states like Arkansas, Connecticut and Delaware have a “culture of clemency,” said Margaret Love, the U.S. pardon attorney under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. “Some states have a pretty good system, but most rely on the character of the particular governor.”

January 7, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 04, 2016

"Mr. Obama’s Trickle of Mercy"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent New York Times editorial.  Here is an excerpt:

After seven years in office, Mr. Obama has issued a total of 184 commutations and 66 pardons — more grants, as the White House wasted no time in pointing out, than the last six presidents combined. But that’s a pitifully low bar, since Mr. Obama’s most recent predecessors all but abandoned the practice.

Mr. Obama knows this is a far deeper problem than can be solved by a few dozen grants.  There are 9,000 applications for commutations that have not been acted on.  The administration solicited applications like these in 2014 as part of a sweeping clemency initiative aimed at federal inmates who have served at least 10 years of a sentence that would be shorter today because the law has changed.  To be eligible, prisoners must also have been convicted of a low­level, nonviolent offense, have no “significant” criminal history, and have behaved while behind bars.

At the time, the initiative seemed a big step toward reversing some of the gravest injustices of the nation’s decades­long drug war, most obviously for the thousands of inmates still serving time for crack cocaine offenses that are punished far less harshly today.

Less than two years later, however, the vast majority of applications remain in limbo.  A coalition of volunteer defense lawyers working alongside the Justice Department has struggled to get basic information on applicants.  The department itself is hopelessly mired in bureaucratic tangles and institutional conflicts of interest.

By the administration’s own estimates, as many as 10,000 people could be released under the new criteria, former Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. told The Washington Post this month.  So why is Mr. Obama continuing to make grants in the single or double digits?

One reason is the Justice Department; the clear solution is to run the process directly out of the White House.  The president may also be wary of undercutting a package of bipartisan sentencing reforms making its way through Congress.  But that legislation is far from a done deal, and may be on even shakier ground now that one of the leading Republican presidential candidates, Senator Ted Cruz, rejects reforms he previously supported.

Regardless of what Congress does, the presidential power of mercy is explicit in the Constitution, it is virtually unlimited, and presidents once used it far more freely to correct injustices. It is a “tool of public morality,” as one former federal prosecutor put it.  If Mr. Obama truly wants to reinvigorate this moribund process, he has a year left to do it. The job requires only two things: a pen and the political will.  There is no question that Mr. Obama has the pen.

A few recent related posts:

January 4, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, December 28, 2015

"It’s Time for Obama to Go Big on Pardons"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable recent New Yorker commentary authored by Jeffrey Toobin. Here are excerpts:

The orderly mind of Barack Obama appears to recoil at the vulgar world of pardons.  The President is a consummate rationalist, a believer in systems and order.  Pardons, in contrast, rely exclusively on the whim of the grantor. This Presidential power is descended from the concept known in Great Britain as the royal prerogative of mercy — three words that seem almost guaranteed to offend this President, singularly or especially aligned together.

But President Obama is starting to come around on pardons, or at least on commutations. (A commutation allows a convict to leave prison at a designated date; a pardon can also involve an end to a prison sentence but bestows a broader restoration of rights, like the right to vote or own a firearm.)  Last week, the President announced that he had commuted the sentences of ninety-five federal prisoners and granted two pardons.  In seven years, Obama has now issued a hundred and eighty-four commutations, more than his last six predecessors combined, but only sixty-one pardons, which is far less than most recent Presidents.... Obama is moving in the right direction, but he has a long way to go.  There are roughly two hundred thousand people in federal prison in the United States.  Do they all belong there?  Should only a few dozen have their sentences shortened?

Those questions answer themselves, as Obama himself knows.  He has made the reduction of mass incarceration one of the touchstones of his final years in office. As he said, in a recent speech to the N.A.A.C.P. national convention, “Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we need to do something about it.” No one can stop the President from doing at least that.  Since 2011, Obama has been stymied by the Republican Congress from undertaking major legislative initiatives, but the pardon power is absolute and unfettered.  The President can pardon everyone, and anyone, he chooses.

Obama is a democrat as well as a Democrat, and surely something in him rebels at exercising absolute power on a grand scale.  One problem with pardons is that Presidents have considered them in secret, springing the decisions on the public only after they have been made.  In high-profile cases, like Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton’s pardon of the fugitive financier Marc Rich, the political repercussions have been disastrous. But Obama could avoid this problem with some innovation — and sunshine.  Over the last year of his Presidency, his Administration should publish the names of people being considered for pardons.  In this way, members of the public can make their views known about the wisdom (or lack thereof) of letting each individual out of prison.  All Presidents and governors (who also have pardon power) are haunted by the possibility that they might release someone who goes on to commit horrible crimes. (Former Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas pardoned several people who did just that.)

This public airing might well save Obama from making some poor choices, but it will also guarantee him a measure of political protection.  Opponents of pardons will be able to speak now, or they’ll forever have to hold their peace.  If Republicans offer blanket objections to broad pardons, they’ll be demonstrating that they simply want more people in prison, regardless of the costs in dollars, public safety, or lost lives.

Most importantly, this process could allow the President to end or reduce the sentences of many more prisoners than he has done so far.  Obama could make the case for pardons or commutations on an individual-by-individual basis, or he could establish a broader rule — that, say, every nonviolent drug offender with just a single conviction, or possession of a certain quantity of drugs, would be eligible....

Obama should be considering action on this vast scale. When it comes to mass incarceration, he has been content so far to work around the fringes. He has asked Congress to consider reducing sentences for certain crimes.  He has told Attorney General Loretta Lynch to restrict the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons.  These are worthy, modest goals.  But the pardon power, with its roots in the monarchy, allows a President to go big — and that’s exactly how Obama should go.

P.S. Ruckman at Pardon Power is not especially impressed by Toobin's work here, as evidence by this recent posting about this commentary headlined "Toobin: Still the Worst of the Worst."

A few very recent related posts:

December 28, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Highlighting how Chrismas clemency cheer brings a lump of coal for those left off Prez Obama's list

This Washington Post article, headlined "Obama’s clemency list brings joy to the lucky and anguish to the disappointed," notes the sadness felt by federal prisoners and their families when certain names fail to appear on the latest list of commutations. Here are excerpts from a lengthy piece that gives special attention to the (in)famous case of Weldon Angelos:

The president wants to use his clemency power to undo past injustices, and on Friday, in the largest single-day grant of his presidency, he signed 95 commutations.  They brought joy to families across the country.

“God be the Glory,” said Sharanda Jones, a 48-year-old Texas woman who was sentenced to life in prison without parole for a cocaine offense. She was a first-time, nonviolent offender. “I am overjoyed.”

But for thousands of other prisoners, who may also meet the president’s criteria, their exclusion was a hard blow.  “It was a great day for those who won the lottery and one more disappointment for everyone in the pipeline who should be on the list,” said Amy Povah, a former inmate and the founder of the Can-Do Foundation, a clemency advocacy group.

criminal justice reform advocates of an irrationally severe system.  He was sentenced in 2004 to a mandatory 55 years in prison without the possibility of parole after he was arrested for selling marijuana in three separate transactions with a Salt Lake City police informant, while possessing a firearm.  Angelos never used or pulled out the gun, but the informant testified that he saw a gun when he made the buys, and that triggered a statute referred to as “gun stacking,” which forced the judge to give him a long sentence.

Angelos’s case has been widely championed, including by Families Against Mandatory Minimums and conservative billionaire Charles Koch.  Former U.S. District Court judge Paul G. Cassell, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, has called the sentence he imposed on Angelos “unjust, cruel and even irrational.”  Mark Holden, general counsel and senior vice president of Koch Industries, said the failure to commute Angelos’s sentence Friday was “disappointing and devastating for Weldon and his family.”

“Think of anything in your life that you’ve waited for,” Holden said.  “Everything else pales in comparison to this. ​​ It is unclear why Angelos failed to get clemency.  A Justice Department spokeswoman said that officials do not discuss individual clemency petitions. Another official noted that the department is processing them “as thoroughly and expeditiously as we can.”

Each of the four times that the president has announced his commutations has been difficult for Angelos, but this time cut the deepest.  And it’s not because it came around the holidays. It’s because this group of inmates will be released on April 16.  “If I had been given clemency this time,” Angelos, a father of three, said in an interview at the Federal Correctional Institution at Mendota, “I would have been out for my oldest son’s graduation from high school in June.”

When he came in from the track, Angelos called his sister, Lisa.  She had heard he wasn’t on the list, and she was crying.  While talking to her, he looked up and saw Obama on the prison television set making his official announcement at his end-of-year news conference.  “I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach,” he said.

Similar scenes were playing out in other federal prisons, said Angelos’s lawyer, Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and a co-founder of New York University’s Clemency Resource Center.  He represents nine clients who are seeking clemency. “I dreaded the phone ringing,” Osler said in a blog post he called “Sunday Reflection:  The sad call”: “I looked at the screen and it said what I feared it would: ‘Unknown,’ which is how calls from prison always come up. I let it ring once, twice, three times before pressing ‘answer.’ . . . And each time I talked to them about what had happened, how I did not know how they picked the lucky ones.  They told me, in heavy voices, what they would miss: a son’s graduation, the last days of a mother in fading health.  And each time I hung up and sat in silence.”

White House Counsel W. Neil Eggleston said last week that Obama, who has granted 184 clemencies, has already commuted the sentences of more individuals than the past five presidents combined.  “We expect that the president will grant more commutations and pardons to deserving individuals in his final year in office,” Eggleston added.

But clemency advocates say that Obama has put himself in a different position than previous presidents. Instead of granting a moment of mercy to an inmate — much like the odds of being struck by lightning — Obama’s Justice Department set out eight specific clemency criteria, including having served at least 10 years, having no significant criminal history prior to conviction and demonstrating good behavior in prison.  And he raised the hopes of thousands who believed they could qualify. “What the president announced was a categorical grant to people who met those eight criteria,” Osler said. “If it’s a categorical grant, we should be seeing consistency.”

I suspect there may well be a cruel irony to the decision not to have (my former pro bono client during his 2255 efforts) Weldon Angelos on the lastest list of commutation: I think Prez Obama and his advisors might reasonably fear that granting clemency to Angelos now could undercut some urgency in Congress to continue pressing forward with statutory sentncing reform. GOP Senator Mike Lee has often mentioned the Angelos case in his advocacy for federal sentencing reform, and the stacking of mandatory minimums that resulted in Angelos' extreme sentence would be fixed in the reform bills that have been slowly moving through Congress.

I suspect Prez Obama is especially eager to see Angelos get relief from a duly enacted law, and I remain hopeful that Angelos will appear on a clemency list before this time next year if Congress in 2016 proves unable to reform the problematic provision that led to Angelos receiving a mandatory 55 years for a few minor marijuana sales. In the meantime, I hope Weldon, his family and all those advocating on his behalf might get a glimmer of comfort from the possibility that Angelos' continued incarceration may actually foster continued congressional reform efforts which would benefit thousands of fellow federal prisoners.

December 24, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

"To forgive prisoners is divine — or as close as government gets"

The title of this post is the sub-headline of this notable new commentary published by the American Conservative and authored by Chase Madar under the main headline "The Case for Clemency."  I recommend the lengthy piece in full, and here are excerpts:

President Obama’s recent announcement that he would commute the sentences of 95 federal prisoners and fully pardon two others is welcome news.  So is a holiday press release from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has hitherto been miserly with clemency, but will pardon nonviolent offenses committed by 16 and 17 year olds (who will continue to be automatically tried as adults, a harshness almost unique among the fifty states).  But we should see these gestures for what they are: small trickles of clemency where what is demanded is a rushing, roaring pipeline scaled to the globally unprecedented size of our prison population and incarceration rate. We need industrial-scale clemency.  Here is why and how....

At the federal level — which only accounts for about 12 percent of U.S. prisoners — mild sentencing reform has both bipartisan support and bipartisan resistance in the Senate.  Looking to the states, a much hyped “moment” of criminal-justice reform is more than countervailed by the deeply ingrained punitive habits of governors and legislatures across the land, from Massachusetts, whose liberal governor signed a tough “three strikes” law in 2012, to Louisiana, where Bobby Jindal upped penalties for heroin-related offenses.

Whether we admit it or not, we are in quite a spot: our hyper-incarceration is unprecedented in U.S. history.  Rectifying this will require changes in policing, a cutting back of what we criminalize, and serious revision of our sentences, which far outstrip their deterrent value.  Another part of the solution will have to be clemency on a massive scale: pardons, which all but expunge a criminal record; commutations, which shorten a prison sentence; parole; geriatric and compassionate release; and retroactive sentencing reform.

As of this writing, Obama has issued more commutations than any other president since Lyndon Johnson.  But the supply of imprisoned Americans is orders of magnitude greater than it was in Johnson’s day, and Obama has only granted pardons or commutations at the exceedingly stingy rate of one out of 136, in line with the steep plummet in clemency since World War II. The Department of Justice has promised to routinize clemency, issuing new guidelines for nonviolent offenders who have served 10 years already, but the results so far have been bonsai-scaled in comparison to the magnitude of the federal prison population....

So much for Washington, which despite much misty-eyed self-congratulation has not shown itself up to the task of scaling back our prison state.  Washington’s timidity means less than it first appears however: despite lazy media focus on the federal justice system, the real action is at the state level, which handles most policing, sentencing, and imprisoning.  Alas, here too the general trend has been towards greater stinginess with clemency. 

Take the example of Minnesota, a state that has, by U.S. standards, a low incarceration rate and arguably the most humane penal system in the country, with perhaps more in common with Denmark and Germany than with Texas and Louisiana.  Yet it says something that Mark Dayton, one of the most progressive governors in the country, has a more merciless default setting than virtually all of his executive predecessors from the mid-20th century.  Minnesota used to grant pardons and commutations by the barrelful: from 1940-89, the state granted 741 commutations and nearly 90 percent of all pardon applications.  Minnesota’s clemency process began to tighten in the 1970s, only to be choked off further in the 1980s. From 2000-10, the number of pardons plummeted. In the past quarter-century, Minnesota has not issued a single commutation.

The barriers to mercy are dug deeply into American politics and intellectual culture.  At the same time there is a rich tradition of clemency in this country, which can and should be tapped into.... Devotion to the Rule of Law has an ugly side in resentment of executive acts of mercy, at the level of practice and high theory.... Overall, the thrust of American legalism militates against executive clemency, which seems to many a kind of short circuit, a deus ex machina, an insult to the rule of law, smelling of elitism and monarchical whims....  (And it has to be said, occasionally this image of executive mercy as sleazy end-run around the justice system is correct: think of Bill Clinton granting a full pardon to felonious oil trader Marc Rich, whose ex-wife had been a major Democratic fundraiser.)

But in the face of this hostility to the pardon power there is a great counter-tradition of American clemency.  At the founding of the country, executive power was seen not as a violation of our self-image as a “nation of laws not men” but as a necessary and healthily legitimate part of any popular government. As Hamilton wrote in Federalist 74: “the benign prerogative of pardoning should be as little as possible fettered.”  Without pardon power, “justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel.”...

U.S. history turns out to be generously littered with acts of mass clemency.  In the 1930s, Mississippi Governor Mike Conner went to Parchman Farm, the state penitentiary, and held impromptu “mercy courts” that freed dozens of African-American prisoners, in an act that entered national folklore — as did Texas Governor Pat Neff’s pardon in 1925 of Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, who issued his clemency request in song.  In the 20th century, Governors Lee Cruce of Oklahoma, Winthrop Rockefeller of Arkansas, and Toney Anaya of New Mexico all commuted their states’ death rows down to zero upon leaving office.  Among presidents, according to political scientist P.S. Ruckman Jr’s excellent blog Pardon Power, Abraham Lincoln granted clemency every single month of his administration as an act of mercy and a canny political strategy.  Woodrow Wilson, though a teetotaler himself, pardoned hundreds convicted of booze-related infractions to signal his disapproval of Prohibition....

Reversing course on hyper-incarceration and clemency will be a generational project, and an Augean one at that. Judges and prosecutors are not the most self-effacing career group, and many would sooner eat their Civil Procedure books than admit error.... But for most people, clemency in cases of judicial and prosecutorial error is a no brainer: the law’s finality should not come at the expense of justice.   The type of clemency we need today, however, is to remedy a problem several orders of magnitude larger, admitting not legal or judicial error but political or legislative disaster.  A rushing, roaring clemency pipeline would be an explicit recognition that the various state and federal tough-on-crime policies, virtually all of which passed with broad bipartisan support, were dead wrong....

Our incarcerated population is also aging rapidly, and though older prisoners have far lower recidivism rates, few states are availing themselves of geriatric release. For instance, Virginia in 2012 granted geriatric release to less than 1 percent of about 800 prisoners eligible, according to the state parole board. Meanwhile, as the Virginian Pilot reported, “during the same period, 84 inmates died in state prisons.” Running high-security nursing homes is neither compassionate nor fiscally sound—another reason to restore and expand clemency.

What is needed is a restoration of the kind of clemency that was once the everyday norm in this country, expanded to meet the needs of our enormous 21st-century prison population.  There will surely be stentorian howling that industrial-scale clemency is the invasive hand of overweening government power.  These fault-finders ought to be reminded that our incarceration regime is on a scale rarely seen in human history: our only competitors are third-century BC “legalist” China; the late, off-the-rails Roman Empire; and the Soviet Union from 1930-55.  Routinized clemency on a grand scale will be necessary to tame this beast.

To say that mass incarceration is an issue best addressed by the legislature, not by the executive, is theoretically correct.  But procedural rectitude should not be taken to the point of sadism, ignoring the tens of thousands of harshly sentenced prisoners who are already stuck halfway through the penal snake’s digestive tract.  Besides, this would hardly be the first time that elected officials have used the pardon power as a tool to alter policy.  To give one more glorious example, on Christmas Day in 1912, Governor George Donaghey of Arkansas pardoned 360 state prisoners as a condemnation of the state’s brutal and corrupt “convict leasing” system, making national headlines and dealing a death blow to the corrupt practice.

The time is as ripe as it will ever be for industrial-scale clemency . Even with an 11 percent average increase in homicides in big American cities for 2015 so far (bringing the nation back to 2012 murder levels), violent crime is as low as it’s been since the early 1960s....  How we proceed with clemency is not just about how we treat thousands of prisoners..., it is about how we treat ourselves. According to Shakespeare’s most famous courtroom speech, mercy “blesseth him that gives and him that takes: ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes the throned monarch better than his crown.” With an expansion of the pardon power, we have the opportunity to rule ourselves as monarchs, with all the magnanimity and grace that implies. Or we can remain a nation of vindictive jailers that lectures the rest of the world about freedom.

December 22, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, December 21, 2015

Pennsylvania Supreme Court upholds Gov Wolf's execution moratorium

As reported in this local press article, Pennsylvania's "Gov. Wolf acted within his constitutional authority to temporarily halt the execution of a convicted murderer from Philadelphia, the state Supreme Court ruled on Monday."  Here is more from the article about this notable ruling from the top court in the Keystone State:

In a unanimous decision, the high court said Wolf had the power to delay the death sentence for Terrance Williams until a legislative task force issued its final report on the future of capital punishment in Pennsylvania.  The ruling doesn't apply to Wolf's broader moratorium on the death penalty, but represented a victory for the governor in the broader and contentious battle over the future of executions in the commonwealth.

Wolf announced the reprieve for Williams in February, saying he would shelve all executions until after the report was issued.  That decision that was challenged by Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams and prosecutors from other counties, who argued, among other things, that the governor's position unlawfully meddled with the jury's decision in the case.

But in a 33-page decision written by Justice Max Baer, the court said, "we disagree with the Commonwealth's suggestion that the reprieve unconstitutionally altered a final judgment of this Court; rather, the execution of the judgment is merely delayed."

The court was careful to say it was not considering whether Wolf's overall moratorium was legal; instead, it said, it was weighing specifically whether the governor could delay the execution of Williams, a former quarterback at Germantown High School who was convicted for the 1984 killing of Amos Norwood, a 56-year-old church volunteer. "Future challenges to reprieves granted by Governor Wolf will have to await independent examination based upon our holdings herein," the court wrote....

Wolf issued a brief statement saying he was pleased by the court's ruling. When he announced the decision earlier this year, he called the death penalty "ineffective, unjust, and expensive."  A report from the task force studying if the death penalty can be legally and effectively administered in Pennsylvania was initially due two years ago. But its deadline has been extended.

Shawn Nolan, Terrance Williams' attorney, said Monday that he had not yet shared the news with his client but was pleased with the decision. "We have been saying all along that it was constitutional what the governor did," he said. "We're gratified that the Supreme Court made a unanimous decision."

Williams' case is also scheduled to go before the U.S. Supreme Court in February. In that appeal, Nolan is arguing that former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Ronald D. Castille should have recused himself from hearing appeal in the case because he was Philadelphia's district attorney when Williams was sentenced to death.

Cameron Kline, spokesman for the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, said that prosecutors respected the decision even though they had argued for another outcome.

The ruling of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court today in Pennsylvania v. Williams is comprised by  this majority opinion and this concurring opinion.

Prior related posts:

December 21, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

NY Gov Cuomo moves ahead with significant clemency effort for youthful offenders and others

635603709893412683-cuomoAs reported in this official press release, titled "Governor Cuomo Offers Executive Pardons to New Yorkers Convicted of Crimes at Ages 16 and 17," the top elected official in New York today announced a major new clemency initiative.  Here are just some of the details from the press release:

Governor Cuomo announced that he will use his pardon power to alleviate the barrier of a criminal conviction for people convicted of non-violent crimes committed when they were minors, and who have since lived crime-free for 10 or more years. This action, the first of its kind in the nation, advances the principles from his Raise the Age Campaign, which calls upon New York to join 48 other states in recognizing that 16 and 17 year old children do not belong in the adult court system.

The Governor’s action acknowledges that people can and do move beyond the mistakes of their youth, However, their adult criminal records can make it hard for them to find work, get admitted to college, find a place to live, and become licensed in certain occupations. The Governor chooses today to use his Constitutional pardon power to remove the bars created by state law that are associated with these convictions, and allow deserving individuals to move forward with their lives....

By pardoning New Yorkers who have reached this milestone crime-free, the Governor is helping people who present little danger to the public. Moreover, the pardon will be conditional, meaning that if a person defies the odds and is reconvicted, it will be withdrawn.

The Governor’s action will affect a significant number of lives. Of 16 and 17 year olds who committed misdemeanors and non-violent felonies since such records have been tracked by the state, approximately 10,000 have not been reconvicted after at least 10 years. Annually, approximately 350 people convicted as 16 and 17 year olds of misdemeanors and non-violent felonies remain conviction-free after 10 years. In addition to lifting the burden on these individuals themselves, their families will also feel the positive impact of this action. Now a son or daughter, husband or wife, father or mother will be better equipped to help their loved ones as they find it easier to attain employment, go to school, find housing, and work in licensed professions....

Agency staff will make a recommendation to the Governor to grant a pardon if:

The person was 16 or 17 at the time they committed the crime for which they were convicted.

At least 10 years have passed since the person was either convicted of the crime, or released from a period of incarceration for that crime, if applicable.

The person has been conviction-free since that time.

The person was convicted of a misdemeanor or a non-violent felony.

The person was not originally convicted of a sex offense.

The person is currently a New York State resident.

The person has paid taxes on any income.

The person is a productive member of his or her community, meaning that the individual is working, looking for work, in school or legitimately unable to work.

In addition to this general invitation to apply, the Administration will do targeted outreach to candidates for the pardon, starting with the most recent cohort of potentially eligible individuals, those convicted in the year 2004. Administrative staff will review the cohort and will attempt to contact those convicted of qualifying crimes committed while they were 16 or 17 and who have stayed conviction-free. They will be informed of their initial eligibility for a pardon and invited to apply, using the website. Once the 2004 cohort has been contacted, the process will be repeated for individuals convicted in 2003, and further back until outreach has been made to all potential candidates.

The Governor’s action reinforces his commitment to alleviating barriers for people with criminal convictions, exemplified by his creation of the Council of Community Reintegration and Reintegration in 2014, and his acceptance and implementation of 12 recommendations for executive action from that Council in September of this year. These executive actions included adopting new anti-discrimination guidance for New York-financed housing, and adopting “fair chance hiring” for New York State agencies....

With assistance from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, representatives from the Governor’s Office have developed a comprehensive training program and will begin working with these associations to train volunteer attorneys via webinar in early 2016. Although individuals may apply for clemency without the assistance of an attorney, assistance from a pro bono attorney will enhance the quality of an inmate’s application and present his or her best case to the Governor. The New York County Lawyers Association, New York State Bar Association, New York City Bar Association, the Legal Aid Society, and the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers will prepare petitions for sentence commutations and the Bronx Defenders will provide post-petition legal services with respect to benefits, housing, and employment, for successful petitioners. The trainings, delivered via webinar with accompanying materials, will walk volunteer attorneys associated with the collaborating legal organizations through each step of being assigned a case, communicating with their client, and preparing a strong petition.

Today Governor Cuomo also granted clemency relief to two individuals who have demonstrated rehabilitation and made positive strides in their lives since their criminal convictions. These individuals were granted clemency relief in the interests of justice and rehabilitation. The clemencies granted today are in addition to the four the Governor granted several weeks ago.

December 21, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, December 19, 2015

An early set of takes on Prez Obama's clemency work to date

As first reported in this post (with has already generated an interesting set of comments), yesterday Prez Obama granted commutations of prison sentences to 95 federal inmates.  And, as stressed in this posting from the White House blog, this development means that Prez Obama has now granted has now granted 184 commutations total -- more than the last five presidents combined."  I think it is justifiable that the Obama Administration is now inclined to crow about its clemency record with respect to commutations, although it remains notable that Prez Obama has still granted precious few pardons and is still well behind even the commutation pace set by Republican predecessors like Calvin Coolige and Herbert Hoover.

Helpfully, P.S. Ruckman over at Pardon Power is already hard at work providing lots of historical context (and other types of contexts) for assessing what Prez Obama has done in this space only 24 hours since this latest grant.  Here are his recent postings, all of which merit checking out:

December 19, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Data on sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (18)

Friday, December 18, 2015

Prez Obama commutes 95 federal prison sentences and grants 2 pardons

As reported in this official White House press release, this afternoon "President Barack Obama granted commutations of sentence to 95 individuals and pardons to two individuals."  The release has a list of all the recipients of these clemency actions and their crimes and sentences, and I am hopeful I will have time (and help) in the days ahead to assess whether there is any unique elements to these latest clemency actions.  For now, I can just say huzzah and reprint part of this notable press release titled "Clemency Project 2014 Welcomes Commutation of 95 Federal Prison Sentences":

In his first clemency grants since July, President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 95 prisoners today, 27 of whom were applicants whose petitions were supported by Clemency Project 2014.

"While it is my hope that President Obama will increase the use of his clemency power going forward, one can only be happy for each and every of today's grantees and their loved ones." said Cynthia W. Roseberry, project manager for Clemency Project 2014. "Clemency Project 2014's unprecedented army of volunteer lawyers has been steadfast in its efforts to meet the Project's commitment to ensure that every applicant who appears to meet the criteria has a volunteer lawyer to prepare and submit a timely clemency petition. We are determined to do our part to make clemency a cornerstone of the Obama legacy."

"We take President Obama at his word that there is no ceiling on the number of commutations he will grant before leaving office. And so while we are grateful for every single commutation, there are many hundreds more who deserve relief. We urge the President to confound the skeptics by making 2016 an historic year for clemency grants," said Norman L. Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, a partner organization in Clemency Project 2014.

December 18, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (24)

Monday, December 14, 2015

Reviewing and reflecting on persistent problems with the federal clemency process

The recent Washington Post article about criminal justice reform efforts during the second term of the Obama Administration (discussed here) hinted that we could expect to see Prez Obama grant a significant number of additional prison commutations in the coming weeks.  But this effective new Marshall Project piece by Bill Keller, headlined "The Bureaucracy of Mercy: Why hasn’t President Obama freed more prisoners? Maybe that’s the wrong question," reviews why federal clemency procedures and practices have been persistently disappointing for those who believe there is a need for much more than sporadic grants of executive mercy. I recommend the lengthy article in full, and here is how it starts and ends:

As the two presidents, one incoming and the other outgoing, shared a limo to the inauguration in January 2009, President Bush had some advice for President-elect Obama: “Announce a pardon policy early on, and stick to it.” Bush had been stunned by a final-days flood of appeals for clemency on behalf of friends and former colleagues convicted of federal crimes.

“I came to see a massive injustice in the system,” Bush recalled in his memoir, “Decision Points.” “If you had connections to the president, you could insert your case into the last-minute frenzy. Otherwise, you had to wait for the Justice Department to conduct a review and make a recommendation.”

As he approaches his own last-minute frenzy, President Obama has embraced criminal justice reform —especially the problem of over-incarceration — as a major cause of his administration.

“Over the course of this year, I’ve been talking to people all across the country about reforming our criminal justice system to be fairer, to be smarter, to be more effective,” he said in a speech in November.

And yet Obama’s clemency record so far — counting commutations and pardons — lags behind every recent president except George H.W. Bush, who had only a single term. On pardons, which give ex-inmates a better chance to get jobs, find housing, vote and generally live normal lives, Obama is the stingiest president since John Adams — 64 granted so far, fewer than three percent of the petitions filed....

But to many advocates of reform, the numbers miss the larger point: after navigating the multi-stage process of CP14, applicants still had to pass through the Department of Justice, where the main job is to lock people up, not let people out.  Between prosecutors and defenders, says David Patton, head of the Federal Defenders of New York, there is “a difference in role and perspective.” Prosecutors, he said, are “less able to see things through the eyes of our clients, or through the eyes of anyone other than the prosecutor.”

“In some sense, by recommending that a sentence be reduced you are taking a position that is, in all likelihood, contrary to what DOJ took at the sentencing proceeding,” he said.

Top officials at the Justice Department publicly discount the idea that the department’s culture is hostile to clemency. “We’re not the Department of Prosecutions,” Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates told The Washington Post in May.

Various clemency advocates have different suggestions for change: an independent commission; restoring a federal parole board, which was abolished in the 1980’s, and having it handle commutations; or plucking the pardon attorney’s office from the Department of Justice and locating it in the White House. What they all have in common is reducing the role of the Justice Department.  “I would want prosecutors to weigh in on every case,” said Rachel Barkow, a New York University law professor and member of the U.S. Sentencing commission. ”But I wouldn’t want them to be a veto point, where they could just make a case go away. And that’s what it is right now.”

Margaret Colgate Love, a clemency lawyer who spent 20 years in the Justice Department and was the department’s pardon attorney from 1990 to 1997, agreed: “It’s hopeless, you can’t reform it in the department.”

But Love argues that the focus on presidential clemency is misplaced. Intended as a remedy for individual cases of injustice, she says, executive clemency should not be a tool to reduce prison populations.

Other vehicles exist for more systemic reform, she notes. The U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent agency of the judicial branch, has found 46,000 inmates eligible for earlier release by making new sentencing guidelines for certain drug crimes retroactive. A bill inching through Congress would do the same for some 6,500 people locked up during the national panic over crack cocaine.

Love says that when she hears speculation about moving thousands of people through the clemency process she wonders, “How could anybody who had half a brain imagine that clemency could be used to deal with even a thousand cases? It’s never been done.”

Her prescription is to empower the Bureau of Prisons to identify prisoners ready for commutation and take those cases directly to a judge. “Wardens know who ought to be out, and who not,” she said. “Why should we be putting the president in the position of vouching for a whole bunch of people who did pretty serious crimes, many of them, and have been in prison for many years?”

No one expects any of these reforms to be enacted in the year Obama has left. Which will give him something to pass on to his successor at the next inauguration.

December 14, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Kentucky gov issues hundreds of pardons and a few commutations on way out of office

As reported in this local piece, outgoing Kentucky Governor "Steve Beshear Monday night granted 201 pardons and six commutations to people sentenced for a range of offenses, including 10 women sentenced for violent crimes they committed after suffering years of domestic violence."  Here is more:

Throughout his eight years in office, the Democratic governor said he received more than 3,400 requests for pardons that were reviewed over several months by him and his staff. “I spent many long days weighing the merits and circumstances of individual cases before making my final decisions,” Beshear said in a statement. “The pardon authority afforded me by Section 77 of the Kentucky Constitution isn’t something I take lightly. We are talking about action that impacts the lives of so many individuals.”

Beshear noted that his predecessor, Republican Ernie Fletcher, received more than 1,000 pardon requests and granted just over 100 pardons during his four years in office.

Of the commutations of sentence or full pardons to 10 women who suffered domestic violence, Beshear said, “These 10 women — some of whom are currently incarcerated and some of whom have already been released from institutions — were recommended to me for consideration for full pardons after an extensive joint review by the Department for Public Advocacy and the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association. After further review of those files, I determined that some of the pardon requests should be granted, while others merited a commutation of sentence.”...

Beshear, a former attorney general, also pardoned several individuals convicted of drug offenses. He said their requests “described with candor their mistakes with drugs and highlighted their efforts to stay sober and become productive members of their communities.”

Beshear added: “Throughout my administration, I have worked tirelessly with legislative leaders, local officials and advocates to wipe out the tragic impacts that substance abuse and addiction have had on the people of the commonwealth.

“A significant part of that strategy has been a focus on treatment to help these individuals have a fighting chance at staying clean and turning their lives around. After carefully considering the details of each of these cases, I am convinced that these individuals deserve a second chance at life with a clean record.”

December 8, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, November 26, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 26, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Ohio Gov Kasich extends de facto execution moratorium into 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few prior related posts:

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

Sunday, October 18, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 05, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 01, 2015

"President Obama and the Power of Mercy"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Georgia finally completes execution of female murderer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 28, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 18, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 14, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 10, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some prior related posts:

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

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Digging deeply into the back-end of criminal justice systems

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

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

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

"Clemency 2.0"

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 24, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 03, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 27, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few prior recent related posts:

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

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Do gubernatorial moratoria on executions impact securing of death sentences?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highlighting why dozens of commutations barely move the mass incarceration needle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior recent related posts:

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

Monday, July 13, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 10, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some prior related posts:

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

Saturday, July 04, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Reviewing the energies and intricacies involved in Clemency Project 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lots of prior related posts about Clemency Project 2014:

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

Thursday, June 25, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some prior related posts:

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

Monday, June 15, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some prior related posts:

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

Friday, June 05, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some prior related posts:

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

Thursday, June 04, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some prior related posts:

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

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 01, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some prior related posts:

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

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 02, 2015

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

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

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