Friday, April 10, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

More reflections on Prez Obama's recent commutations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related posts:

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

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related post:

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

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 21, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 16, 2015

Interesting review of Ohio Gov John Kasich's clemency record

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related posts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related posts:

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

Monday, March 02, 2015

AG Holder provides Congress a sentencing reform to-do list

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 01, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some prior related posts:

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

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

More notable new posts from the Collateral Consequences Resource Center

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

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

Saturday, February 21, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some recent related posts:

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

Friday, February 20, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 13, 2015

Pennsylvania Gov declares moratorium on state death penalty

As reported in this local piece, headlined "Gov. Tom Wolf declares moratorium on death penalty in Pa.," there is some headline-making news about capital punishment administration emerging from the Keystone State: 

Gov. Tom Wolf declared a moratorium Friday on the death penalty in Pennsylvania, potentially halting the process for 186 prisoners who've received a death sentence. Since 1693, the commonwealth has executed 1,043 prisoners, the last of which was Philadelphia torture killer Gary Heidnik in 1999. That execution took place, in large part, because Heidnik gave up his right to appeal.

In a statement released Friday, Wolf said the state's current death penalty is "a flawed system that has been proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust and expensive."...

Wolf's first action was a temporary reprieve to Terrance Williams, who was scheduled to be executed on March 4. Williams was convicted of two murders he committed as a teenager in 1984. "Today's action comes after significant consideration and reflection," Wolf said. "This moratorium is in no way an expression of sympathy for the guilty on death row, all of whom have been convicted of committing heinous crimes."

Shortly after Wolf's announcement, Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, said he reintroduced his bill Friday to abolish the death penalty altogether. "I am extremely grateful that our governor will stop spending our tax dollars to, in the words of former US Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, tinker with the machinery of death," he said, in a written statement.

Gov. Wolf's detailed four-page statement justifying his decision today is a fascinating read (which I am going to make my sentencing students read and re-read). The full statement is available at this link, and here are excerpts:

Pursuant to authority granted in Article IV, § 9 of the Constitution of Pennsylvania, I am today exercising my power as Governor to grant a temporary reprieve to inmate Terrence Williams. A death warrant for this case was signed on January 13, 2015 by my predecessor, acting pursuant to Section 4302 of the Pennsylvania Prisons and Parole Code. The execution was scheduled for March 4, 2015.

The reprieve announced today shall remain in effect until I have received and reviewed the forthcoming report of the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment (established under Senate Resolution 6 of 2011), and any recommendations contained therein are satisfactorily addressed. In addition, it is my intention to grant a reprieve in each future instance in which an execution is scheduled, until this condition is met....

There are currently 186 individuals on Pennsylvania’s death row. Despite having the fifth largest death row in the nation, the death penalty has rarely been imposed in modern times. In the nearly forty years since the Pennsylvania General Assembly reinstated the death penalty, the Commonwealth has executed three people, all of whom voluntarily abandoned their right to further due process.

In that same period, Governors have signed 434 death warrants. All but the three noted above have subsequently been stayed by a court. One inmate has been scheduled for execution six times, each of which has been cancelled due to a state or federal appeal. Two inmates have remained on death row for more than three decades. This unending cycle of death warrants and appeals diverts resources from the judicial system and forces the families and loved ones of victims to relive their tragedies each time a new round of warrants and appeals commences. The only certainty in the current system is that the process will be drawn out, expensive, and painful for all involved.

While the pace of the process frustrates some, the fail-safes of appellate review are essential in avoiding a catastrophic miscarriage of justice. Since reinstatement of the death penalty, 150 people have been exonerated from death row nationwide, including six men in Pennsylvania....

If the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is going to take the irrevocable step of executing a human being, its capital sentencing system must be infallible. Pennsylvania’s sy stem is riddled with flaws, making it error prone, expensive, and anything but infallible....

[A]administering the death penalty, with all the necessary legal appeals and safeguards as well as extra security and individual cells on death row, is extremely expensive. A recent analysis conducted by the Reading Eagle estimates that the capital justice apparatus has cost taxpayers at least $315 million, but noted that this figure was very likely low. Other estimates have suggested the cost to be $600 million or more. The Commonwealth has received very little, if any, benefit from this massive expenditure.

February 13, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Friday, February 06, 2015

Highlighting President Obama's pitiful pardon record

ZZoTyPLThis lengthy USA Today piece, headlined "The 50-year-old pardon: Obama picks safe clemency cases," provides yet another review of the now-too-familiar story of President Obama awful record on his use of his clemency authority. Here are excerpts:

Of the 64 pardons President Obama has granted over six years, half are for offenses that happened before 1989. Six are from the 1960s. On average, 23 years have elapsed between the sentencing date and the day Obama has granted a pardon or commutation — an all-time high. A century ago, three or four years was the norm.

It's part of a decades-long trend toward presidents being more cautious in their pardon power, picking older and safer cases for clemency. But Obama has been the most cautious of all, and some critics say he is shirking his constitutional power — some say duty — to "grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States."

"'Safe' is being nice. I would almost say irrelevant. The people who are being pardoned are people on Social Security," said P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political scientist who studies pardons. "The people who need pardons are young and need to establish themselves and get a job, get a Pell grant and go to college."...

Many of Obama's pardons are for old, obscure and sometimes trivial crimes:

• Ronald Lee Foster, of Beaver Falls, Pa., was convicted of mutilating coins in 1963. He had shaved the edges off pennies to fool vending machines into thinking they were dimes. He was pardoned in 2010 at the age of 66.

• David Neil Mercer of Grand Junction, Colo., was convicted in 1997 of violating the Archaeological Resources Protection Act by disturbing Indian artifacts in Utah. He now owns an automotive business and was pardoned last year at the age of 56.

• Bobby Gerald Wilson, of Summerton, S.C., was convicted in 1985 of aiding and abetting in the possession and sale of illegal American alligator hides. He was pardoned in 2011 at the age of 61.

Obama has issued fewer pardons than any president since James Garfield, who served just 199 days in office, and fewer than any two-term president since George Washington, according to Ruckman, a Rock Valley College professor who tracks clemency trends on the blog Pardon Power.

The few pardons Obama is granting often come late in life — sometimes to people on their deathbeds. Albert Byron Stork, a defense attorney from Delta, Colo., was convicted of tax evasion in 1987, when he took money from his fugitive brother for the down payment of a house. He received a pardon the same day as Auvil — and died of brain cancer two weeks later.

The White House said the president has an "ongoing commitment" to granting clemency. "The president believes strongly that a critical component of our criminal justice system is for deserving and qualified applicants to have the ability to petition for clemency," said White House spokeswoman Brandi Hoffine. She said Obama "looks forward to reviewing additional requests for clemency in the coming months."

The Office of the Pardon Attorney, in the Justice Department, is responsible for sifting through the hundreds of applications received each year.... Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff's recommendations go to Deputy Attorney General James Cole, then to White House Counsel Neil Eggleston, and ultimately to the president. That's how it works in principle. But in practice, the Justice Department is run by career prosecutors who are often hostile to those seeking pardons, defense attorneys say.

"They churn out a steady stream of no," said Sam Morison, a lawyer specializing in pardon cases who worked in the Office of the Pardon Attorney in the Clinton, Bush and early Obama administrations. "That doesn't mean that the president has to do what they say. But the president almost always does what the Justice Department recommends, even when he doesn't agree with what the Justice Department recommends." But the Justice Department has to recommend some favorable applications, and they tend to be older, easier cases, he said....

Delegating the decisions to the Justice Department helps to depoliticize the pardon power, but it's also led to its own problems. An internal Justice Department investigation found that President George W. Bush's pardon attorney withheld information from the White House about a commutation he opposed. And in 2010, the nonprofit news organization Pro Publica published an investigation in the Washington Post revealing that, under Bush and Obama, white criminals were four times more likely to get a pardon than black offenders.

Last year, the Justice Department announced a clemency initiative in an attempt to rectify some of the inequities in the system. Inmates who would have gotten lighter sentences under current federal guidelines were encouraged to apply to have their sentences commuted, or reduced.  But the Justice Department says that's a separate issue from pardons. 

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

February 6, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

A test for the Kochs' influence: seeking justice and freedom for Weldon Angelos

Download (1)If the wealthy truly have extraordinary influence on modern federal politics and policies, a notable defendant serving a mandatory 55-year sentence as a result of a few small marijuana sales ought to be getting out of prison before too long.  I say this because, according to this Daily Beast piece, my former client Weldon Angelos is now a "poster boy" for the latest Koch-brothers-backed political effort.  This piece is headlined "The New Face of the Koch Campaign" and here is its subheading: "A father of two was sentenced to 55 years in jail for selling pot. The Koch brothers want to help set him free and make him the face of their new campaign for criminal justice reform."  Here are excerpts:

Weldon Angelos could have hijacked a plane and spent less time in jail.  But due to mandatory sentencing laws, the father of two was sentenced to 55 years in jail for selling pot — a term so long even the judge who gave it to him protested its injustice.  A group backed by the Koch brothers agrees, and is now fighting to get him out of prison.

Angelos is an extreme case: even though the crime was considered non-violent, Angelos carried a firearm during a series of marijuana sales to a Salt Lake City police informant —  so federal mandatory minimums required that he be put in jail until he’s 80 years old. Judge Paul Cassell protested the sentence when he was forced to make it in 2004, a move he told The Daily Beast he considers “the most unjust, lengthy sentence that I had to hand down.”...

Angelos is now 35 years old and has spent some 11 years behind bars.  He has more than 40 years left to go.  Even though his crime was non-violent, parole is not an option at the federal level.  His only hope for relief from his sentence is an order by the president.

“If we’re going to deprive someone of liberty, and deal with the high cost of incarceration, it better solve a problem.  And in this case, it doesn’t solve any problem,” argued Mark Osler, Angelos’ lawyer, who filed a clemency petition on his behalf in 2012.

This is where the Koch brothers come in.  The case is being highlighted by Koch-backed group Generation Opportunity, which targets millenials, in a broader campaign to press for criminal justice reforms this year.  They will kick off the campaign with a documentary highlighting Angelos’ predicament, premiering at Washington, D.C.’s Newseum next week. “[This year] offers a unique moment in history in which people of different backgrounds and political leanings are coming together to facilitate a substantive dialogue on how to fix [the criminal justice system],” said Evan Feinberg, the group’s president. “We can work towards a more just system that reflects the rule of law without overcriminalizing non-violent offenses.”

The new campaign will target the overcriminalization of non-violent crime, mandatory minimum laws, and helping criminals who have served their sentences reintegrate into society.  The demilitarization of police and the excesses of civil asset forfeiture will also be addressed.

Generation Opportunity worked with Families Against Mandatory Minimums on the documentary.  FAMM founder Julie Stewart was in the room during Angelos’ first sentencing hearing.  It was, she said, a severe example of a worrisome trend in the criminal justice system....

“A lot of people just thought that because of the amount of time my brother was [sentenced to], he had done something terrible, just because of the ignorance that is out there about mandatory sentencing,” said Lisa Angelos, Weldon’s older sister and advocate. “Before the case, I had no idea that this was possible in America.”  The judge who was forced to hand down the sentence, Paul Cassell, said the Angelos case is an example of “clear injustice marring the public perception” of the federal courts — and victimizing taxpayers who have to pay to keep him locked up.

“We have in place in our country today some very draconian penalties that distort our whole federal sentencing scheme,” Cassell said.  “When people look at a case like Weldon Angelos and see that he got 55 years, and they see other cases where victims have gotten direct physical or psychological injuries and don’t see a similar [result] from the system, they start to wonder if the system is irrational.”

When he was sent to prison, Angelos’ children were small, now both are in their teens. Without their father, the family fell on hard financial times.  His children rarely talk to him, Weldon’s sister says, because they can’t afford a cell phone on which they can be reached.  “When I tell him stories about his kids, you can tell how very hard it is for him to hear it… to know that he can’t be here,” Lisa Angelos said. “It’s destroyed him in many ways.”

The Angelos’ have waited for more than two years for word on their executive clemency request.  The average successful clemency request takes approximately four years, according to his lawyer.  Weldon Angelos deserves clemency, Osler said, because his sentencing “doesn’t correlate in this country with what’s wrong, and what those wrongs deserve.”

Long-time readers are likely familiar with the Angelos case, which came to my attention on a few months after I started this blog 11 years ago. I litigated pro bono, unsuccessfully, Weldon's 2255 motion with claims (that I still find compelling) that his prosecution and sentencing involved violations of the Second, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendments. I continue to hope Weldon will receive clemency or some other form of relief soon not merely to remedy the injustice of his extreme prosecution and sentencing, but to vindicate critical constitutional principles.

Related prior posts providing some Angelos case history:

February 3, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Sunday, January 25, 2015

"The Politics of Mercy: Is clemency still the third rail? We may find out."

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy piece by Ken Armstrong at The Marshall Project. Here are excerpts:

For decades, the conventional wisdom has been that clemency equals danger. Any governor who grants pardons or commutations to convicted felons invites political risk – with no potential benefit. In Massachusetts, Mitt Romney signed not a single pardon, a record he later touted.

But when [Robert] Ehrlich was governor of Maryland from 2003 to 2007, he made clemency a priority, dedicating lawyers to screen requests and meeting monthly with senior aides to review applications.  In the end, Ehrlich granted clemency more than 200 times. And should he run for president, he plans to hold up that record as a signature achievement, arguing that it shows he is someone who leads instead of cowers.... The GOP field could also include other candidates who have resisted convention, such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has commuted the death sentences of five condemned inmates since 2011.

Is it possible that a willingness to grant clemency might now offer some political benefit? “I would give it a qualified yes,” says P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political science professor at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Ill., and editor of the Pardon Power blog. “I think increasingly there’s a sense that it’s a nebulous plus if you at least appear to be someone who takes the Constitution seriously and isn’t stuck in the 1980s, pushing the Willie Horton button.”...

Ehrlich says there has since been a cultural shift, with growing concern about harsh sentencing laws — for example, mandatory minimums — and a realization that “the drug epidemic is more appropriately viewed as a health issue than as a criminal justice issue.” The country’s booming prison population “is impacting so many people, so many families, so many careers, so many parents,” Ehrlich says.  “It crosses every line.”...

Margaret Love, who served as U.S. Pardon Attorney under presidents Clinton and George H.W. Bush, says,  “This is a function of the justice system that should not be subject to these political whims.  I get sort of annoyed whenever I see it treated as a sort of holiday gift-giving. That’s not what it is. It’s part of the system, or at least ought to be.”

On Thursday, Love wrote a post on the website for the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, noting the symbolism of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s recent summoning of the media to watch him sign a conditional pardon for an autistic inmate.  “There may be no more telling sign that the ‘soft on crime’ label is losing its power over elected officials than McAuliffe’s decision to publicize this bedside act of mercy,” she wrote.

In the next campaign, no candidate would test the power of that label more than Mike Huckabee, who this month left his Fox News show to consider running.  In his decade as Arkansas governor, Huckabee granted clemency more than 1,000 times.  On Thursday, BuzzFeed published an unaired ad that Mitt Romney’s campaign had prepared during the 2008 race, tying Huckabee to the early release of a serial rapist who, once freed, committed murder.  Romney’s campaign ultimately balked at using the ad.

Since then, Huckabee has become an even more inviting target.  In 2009, in Washington state, a former Arkansas inmate named Maurice Clemmons shot and killed four police officers in a coffee shop.  Nine years before, Huckabee had commuted Clemmons’s prison sentence, making him eligible for parole.

It might seem that advocates for clemency would cringe at the prospect of a Huckabee candidacy in 2016, given his vulnerability to Willie Horton-type attacks.  But Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, says, “I’ve told people for the last few years that one of the best things for clemency would be for Huckabee to run.”

What Osler and others see in Huckabee is an opportunity for an open discussion of what clemency is – and is not. “It does not lead to perfection, in the same way the jury system does not lead to perfection,” Osler says.  “With clemency you have an independent moral actor who is unpredictable — and that’s the person receiving clemency.  You can never guarantee that that person will not commit another crime.”

Clemency advocates believe Huckabee, an ordained minister, can make a persuasive case for mercy, particularly given how he links clemency to his Christian faith and to his belief in what he calls “restorative justice.”...

Ehrlich, unlike Huckabee, has not had any grants of mercy come back to haunt. And when talking about his embrace of clemency, he’s found support among dramatically different audiences, from a dinner co-hosted by the Charles Koch Foundation to a forum sponsored by George Soros’s Open Society Foundations.  “So it’s hard right and hard left, but the audiences have generally the same view on this issue,” he says.  In a speech three years ago, Ehrlich boiled his motives for making clemency a priority down to this: “Because it's the right thing to do. It's really not that complicated.”...

The field of potential presidential candidates also includes governors at the opposite end of this spectrum.  Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, has refused to grant any pardons, portraying them as an undermining of the criminal justice system, rather than as a way to recognize someone’s rehabilitation or help check an unduly harsh law or ill-conceived prosecution.  To Ruckman, Walker is “on the wrong side of history. He’s a dinosaur on this one.”

January 25, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 22, 2015

NACDL explains the massive work behind Clemency Project 2014

Download (1)As noted in this prior post, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley last week sent this letter to Attorney General Eric Holder asking a number of questions about the relationship between the Justice Department and outside groups working on "Clemency Project 2014." Though AG Holder has not yet, to my knowledge, late last week one of the key groups involved in Clemency Project 2014 described its work and the broader project.

Specifically, the NACDL on Friday sent around this lengthy news release (which I believe was a joint statement by all of the groups working together on this project) titled "Clemency Project 2014: A Historically Unprecedented and Wholly Independent Volunteer Effort By the Nation's Bar." The release merits a full read for those following closely the current activities surrounding federal clemency, and here is an excerpt:

An army of volunteer lawyers are diligently working on behalf of thousands of prisoners who have requested free legal assistance in drafting and submitting clemency petitions. This unprecedented, wholly independent effort by the bar, facilitated by the organizations which make up Clemency Project 2014, seeks to achieve justice for those prisoners. It reflects these organizations' shared commitment to the highest calling of the legal profession.

At its core, Clemency Project 2014 is a vehicle through which attorneys, responding to the Department of Justice's call for the bar to offer free assistance to potential petitioners, may participate in this important initiative.  The Project has not been delegated any responsibility or authority by the Department of Justice.  The Project expects the Department of Justice to treat these petitions as they would any other well-reasoned petition in making its recommendations to the President, who is the sole authority for granting clemency.  Many prisoners have applied directly to the Department of Justice for clemency without using the lawyers working with Clemency Project 2014, and/or are using counsel they identified and retained outside of the Project.

Since its conception less than a year ago, Clemency Project 2014 created a training and case management infrastructure to prepare an army of volunteer lawyers. Indeed, in just a handful of months, the Project:

  • Provided volunteer support from each of the entities to organize a mechanism for outreach to inmates and attorneys, and to develop a technological infrastructure;

  • Received critical funding from the ACLU and supplemental funding from the Foundation for Criminal Justice to fund and recruit three critical staff positions to oversee the effort;

  • Obtained donated office space and technological infrastructure from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL);

  • Enabled Project administrators to efficiently review, sort, and assign prisoner requests, and created and implemented an electronic database to efficiently organize detailed prisoner requests for assistance that at last count numbered more than 26,000;

  • Developed and deployed an extensive, multi-hour legal education training program (available on demand to any interested attorney at no charge) to ensure that all volunteer lawyers, from any practice background, will be equipped with the tools necessary to evaluate and prepare petitions for submission to the Office of Pardon Attorney for its review and consideration;

  • Responded to a legal memorandum issued by the Administrative Office of the Courts that opined that federal public defenders may not provide representation in clemency matters, by recruiting additional volunteer attorneys to fill the void while federal defenders continue to assist in gathering documents on behalf of former clients, and to provide administrative support for the Project;

  • Worked with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law to recruit more than 50 large firms, bringing hundreds of additional lawyers to the process;

  • Established and implemented a multi-tier process to assist volunteer lawyers in identifying potentially eligible applicants and preparing petitions for submission to the Office of Pardon Attorney for consideration....

  • Assigned 5,310 cases to volunteer attorneys;

  • Provided individual notice to several thousand applicants with a sentence of less than ten years, a disqualifying factor under the Justice Department's criteria;

  • Established a website with information for the public, including family members; and

  • Offered ongoing, individual legal support, resource materials, and on demand training to more than 1,500 volunteer attorneys.....

This endeavor has brought in lawyers from vastly diverse practice backgrounds, more than 50 of the nation's largest and most prestigious law firms and law clinics, leading not-for-profit organizations, and the criminal defense bar to answer the call made last year by Deputy Attorney General James Cole before the New York State Bar Association.

Some prior related posts:

January 22, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 15, 2015

"Are Pardons Becoming More Politically Acceptable?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this new Governing article. The piece has the subheadline, "Gubernatorial pardons have been in decline since the 1980s, but that appears to be changing as views evolve on rehabilitation and drug offenses." And here are excerpts:

Last Friday, on his last full business day in office, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn pardoned 232 ex-offenders. That same day, in neighboring Indiana, Gov. Mike Pence issued three pardons -- the first during his two years in office.

Which governor’s actions were standard? Until recently, it would have been easy to pick Pence. For decades now, governors have been sparing with pardons, not wanting to be perceived as lenient and worrying about the political risks that can come with pardoning people who go on to commit further crimes.

But gubernatorial pardons may be about ready to start making a comeback. As part of the broader rethinking of criminal justice strategies, in which concerns about rehabilitation, exonerations and expungement of records have become part of the mix, more governors seem willing to embrace their historic role of offering clemency to those who have earned it.

Quinn offered 43 additional offenders clemency during his last minutes in office on Monday, bringing his career total well above 1,000. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe issued nearly 50 pardons during his first year in office, while California’s Jerry Brown gave out more than 100 on Christmas Eve.

Those sorts of numbers still stand out. The number of gubernatorial pardons has dropped dramatically in recent decades, according to legal experts. Plenty of governors these days only offer a few pardons a year, if that many. But governors offering a regular flow of pardons are no longer the outliers that they would have been just a few years ago. "I do have a sense that people like Quinn represent the future," said P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political scientist at Rock Valley College in Illinois and editor of the Power Pardon blog. "There is kind of a different mindset."

One telltale sign of that, Ruckman points out, is that some new governors, including Larry Hogan of Maryland and Bruce Rauner of Illinois, talked during the campaign last year about the importance of taking the pardon power seriously in office. "That wouldn’t have happened in the 1980s,” Ruckman said....

States that have either independent pardoning boards or entities whose recommendations are necessary for a governor to issue a pardon, such as Connecticut and Georgia, have been more active on the clemency front than governors acting alone. A number of those states routinely grant upwards of 200 pardons per year.

Still, governors from both parties, such as Democrat Andrew Cuomo of New York and Republican Scott Walker of Wisconsin have offered either few or no pardons. There’s still a “political fear quotient” involved in pardoning someone who might go on to commit a heinous crime, noted former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich. "Unfortunately, we only talk about pardon policy when something goes wrong," said Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

That’s why governors need to be careful, Ehrlich said, putting regular review processes in place and not bunching up all their decisions at holidays or as they leave office. That's the approach outgoing Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe has taken, reviewing applications on a monthly basis throughout his tenure. Ehrlich has made pardons something of a personal cause, speaking frequently about the responsibility governors have regarding clemency. He runs a program to delineate best practices at Catholic University and offers advice to incoming governors....

“One thing that will be interesting to watch is that President Obama” -- who has issued the fewest pardons of any president since Dwight Eisenhower -- “has a clemency project that may or may not result in hundreds of sentences being commuted,” said Osler. “Maybe that will embolden some of these more liberal governors as well.”

January 15, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Senator Grassley queries DOJ concerning its work with Clemency Project 2014

Josh Gerstein has this notable new piece up at Politico headlined "Grassley questions Obama commutation drive," about a notable new inquiry directed to Attorney General Holder concerning the Obama Administration's (quirky?) efforts to ramp up its clemency activities. Here are excerpts:

New Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley is questioning the arrangements surrounding President Barack Obama's drive to shorten the sentences of some drug convicts.

In a letter sent Tuesday to Attorney General Eric Holder, the Iowa Republican asks for information about the relationship between the Justice Department and "Clemency Project 2014" — a consortium of outside groups formed in response to calls from administration officials to help federal prisoners prepare applications for the clemency effort.

"I am unaware of any time in history in which the Department of Justice has delegated any of these core attributes of presidential power to private parties beholden to no one, and who have their own agendas that may not coincide with the President's," Grassley wrote in the letter (posted here). "When private parties are wrongly given the ability to exercise any role in that public trust, then both the fairness of the pardon process and the appearance of its fairness are jeopardized."

Grassley's letter draws in large part on a POLITICO story last week which said that the new effort is struggling with more than 25,000 requests from inmates and that lawyers involved in the project have suggested applicants which route their clemency petitions through the project will stand a better or faster chance of favorable action than those who submit applications independently. The project—run by the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association, Families Against Mandatory Minimums and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers— is also screening applications and weeding out those it considers unmeritorious under criteria the Justice Department set forth last April.

"Please tell me what formal arrangements exist between the Department and the Clemency Project 2014 to coordinate the processing of pardon applications, including what direction Clemency Project lawyers are given, what actions they take for the Department, and, how, if at all, Department of Justice lawyers consider the work product provided by these organizations or follow their recommendations," Grassley wrote. The senator also asks if anyone in the Justice Department is aware of statements suggesting those who submit applications through the project will have "superior access to the Department's pardon process."...

Grassley's letter refers to "pardon applicants," but the petitions prisoners are submitting are actually requests for commutations — a form of executive clemency that serves to shorten a prisoner's sentence.

The president can grant a commutation to anyone for virtually any reason. However, such applications are traditionally routed through the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney, which prepares recommendations and sends them to the department's No. 2 official, who forwards them to the White House.

The new commutation drive the Justice Department announced last year is aimed largely at paring back the sentences of convicts sent to prison for long terms relating to trafficking in crack cocaine. Those prisoners tend to be disproportionately minority as compared to those convicted of handling powdered cocaine. A law Obama signed in 2010 reduced that disparity for defendants sentenced after that time, but it was not retroactive.

The full Grassley letter is quite interesting, and not just because it gives some grief to Obama Administration about how it appears to be approaching its latest clemency push.  The letter asked a host of hard questions about what exactly DOJ and Clemency Project 2014 are up to, while also asserting in a final paragraph that "[j]ustice in the award of presidential pardons requires a transparent, fair process." And, unsurprisingly, the letter does not mention the sad reality that presidential clemency actions of the last two presidents have involved nothing resembling a "transparent, fair process."    

Among other notable aspects of this letter, Senator Grassley's obvious interest in these matter suggests that clemency issues are likely to be raised in some way during the upcoming confirmation hearings for AG Holder's replacement.  

January 13, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Should honoring vets and PTSD call for commuting a death sentence?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Reuters story headlined "Vietnam veteran in Georgia pleads to be spared the death penalty." Here are excerpts:

Lawyers for a decorated Vietnam War veteran due to be executed in Georgia next week say his life should be spared because he was suffering from a combat-related mental disorder when he killed a sheriff’s deputy in 1998.

Andrew Brannan's guilt is not disputed. He shot Laurens County Deputy Sheriff Kyle Dinkheller, 22, nine times during a traffic stop, a scene caught on tape by the deputy's patrol car camera.

Defense attorneys argue Brannan, 66, should not be put to death for behavior they say is linked to post-traumatic stress disorder triggered by his combat service. On Monday, they will ask the state Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute Brannan's sentence to life in prison without parole. “Commuting his sentence would honor his very meritorious service to this country,” said Brian Kammer, one of Brannan’s lawyers. “We should not be executing those we sent into harm’s way and who were deeply wounded, physically and mentally.”...

Brannan received Army commendations and a Bronze Star for his service as an officer, Kammer said. He was on full Army disability for PTSD and had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder before killing Dinkheller, the lawyer said.

Brannan, who had no prior criminal record, was driving 98 miles per hour on a Georgia highway when Dinkheller pulled him over in January 1998, according to court records. The video recording showed Brannan stepping out of his truck, cursing and telling the deputy to shoot him....

Brannan pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity at his trial. Some experts testified that during the shooting he suffered a flashback from combat, but a court-appointed psychiatrist said Brannan was sane and may have killed the deputy because he believed the officer was being disrespectful.

Brannan's execution is scheduled for Tuesday. He would be the first person put the death in the United States this year.

I am inclined to assert that this offender's decorated service on behalf of our nation as well as his undisputed mental problems indisputably means that Brannan is not one of the "worst of the worst" killers. For that reason, I would be inclined to support this defendant's commutation request.

Do others agree?

Some older related posts:

January 10, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack

Monday, January 05, 2015

Extraordinary review of messiness of Prez Obama's clemency push

Josh Gerstein has this extraordinary Politico piece which provides a terrific (and disconcerting) review of the Obama Administration's recent clemency activities.  The lengthy piece is a must-read for lots of reasons. It is headlined "Obama's drug-sentencing quagmire: Justice Department turns to ACLU, others to prepare thousands of commutation requests," and here is how it starts:

President Barack Obama’s sweeping plan to commute the sentences of nonviolent drug offenders who were caught up in the disparities in laws governing crack and powder cocaine is lagging, burdened by vague guidelines, lack of Justice Department resources and the unusual decision to invite advocacy groups like the ACLU to help screen applications, according to lawyers close to the process.

In the year since the Justice Department encouraged inmates to apply to cut short their sentences, more than 25,000 prisoners have come forward.  But when Obama announced his annual commutations last month, only eight were given.  That reflects deeper problems in the government’s process for reviewing sentences and determining which ones are, indeed, overly long because of the crack-powder distinction, according to those familiar with the system.

The piece includes lots of interesting and notable comments by various unnamed lawyers discussing how the President, the Justice Department, and the Clemency Project 2014 are handling matters. Here are excerpts with some of these quotes:

With so many thousands of petitions pending, the tiny number of commutations announced during the Christmas season prompted a new round of skepticism about the administration’s capacity to ease onerous drug sentencing.

“This is paltry,” said one lawyer familiar with the process. “It is very disappointing.”

“I’d be shocked if it skyrockets to 100 before [Obama] leaves office,” another added....

[DOJ] officials encouraged the groups forming the Clemency Project to recruit and train private attorneys to prepare applications. The organizations have instituted their own screening effort to try to determine if prisoners meet the criteria and to make sure the private lawyers spend time on meritorious cases....

Some liberal-leaning lawyers and clemency advocates ... say the private consortium has taken on an outsize, quasi-official role in the process and has an inherent conflict of interest: Project organizers want to get the strongest possible applications to the Justice Department, which may mean abandoning prisoners whose cases fall into a gray area.

“It bothers me that you have a group of private citizens who have an under-the-table deal with the deputy attorney general to help him do his job and the promise is, ‘We’re going to put your guys at the front of the list,’” one lawyer involved said.  “Instead of dealing with a process that’s already opaque and bureaucratic and too slow, they’ve added this additional layer that’s even more opaque and bureaucratic and too slow.”...

One benefit to the administration of its current approach of working with outside groups is that it could mute criticism from advocates wrapped up in the effort — at least as long as there seems to be a prospect of a meaningful wave of commutations.  “They’ve co-opted all the people who would usually be critics,” said one lawyer close to the project.  “You have that dynamic in play, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.”

The Clemency Project groups insist their involvement hasn’t silenced them.

Though I am not too concerned about clemency critics being co-opted through the Clemency Project, I am concerned about what will be a poor allocation of pro bono lawyering efforts if 1,500 lawyers spend months and years working on clemency applications for thousands of offenders if Prez Obama ends up granting commutations to only a few hundred prisoners. I genuinely believe that an army of 1,500 lawyers working on aggressive for months and years on federal sentencing litigation — perhaps in marijuana cases or attacking some extreme mandatory minimums through habeas actions or other means — could produce jurisprudential development that could end up helping many more than a few hundred defendants.

January 5, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

"Is Obama Finally Ready To Dial Back The War On Drugs?"

Meme1The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy Forbes piece by Jacob Sullum, which provides preview of sorts of of some of the biggest federal criminal justice issues to keep an eye on in the year to come. The piece merits a full read, and here are excerpts:

Some critics of the war on drugs — a crusade that Obama had declared “an utter failure” in 2004 — predicted that he would improve in his second term.  Safely re­elected, he would not have to worry that looking soft on drugs would cost him votes, and he would finally act on his avowed belief that the war on drugs is unjust and ineffective.  As Obama embarks on the third year of his second term, it looks like the optimists were partially right, although much hinges on what he does during the next two years.  Here are some of the ways in which Obama has begun to deliver on his promises of a more rational, less punitive approach to psychoactive substances:

Marijuana Legalization. Although the federal government cannot stop states from legalizing marijuana, it can make trouble for the ones that do by targeting state­licensed growers and retailers.  Under a policy announced in August 2013, the Justice Department has declined to do so, reserving its resources for cannabis operations that violate state law or implicate “federal law enforcement priorities.”...

Federal Marijuana Ban.... Contrary to the impression left by the president, the executive branch has the authority to reschedule marijuana without new legislation from Congress. In September, a few days before announcing that he planned to step down soon, Holder said whether marijuana belongs in the same category as heroin is “certainly a question that we need to ask ourselves.” Since the Controlled Substances Act empowers Holder to reclassify marijuana, it would have been nice if he had asked that question a little sooner. Still, Holder was willing to publicly question marijuana’s Schedule I status, something no sitting attorney general had done before.

Sentencing Reform.  Obama supports the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would make the 2010 crack penalty changes retroactive, cut the mandatory minimums for certain drug offenses in half, and loosen the criteria for the “safety valve” that allows some defendants to escape mandatory minimums.  Beginning last year, Holder has repeatedly criticized our criminal justice system as excessively harsh. Under a new charging policy he established last year, hundreds of drug offenders could avoid mandatory minimums each year....

Clemency.  After a pitiful performance in his first term, Obama has signaled a new openness to clemency petitions.  Last April an unnamed “senior administration official” told Yahoo News the administration’s new clemency guidelines could result in “hundreds, perhaps thousands,” of commutations.  Obama’s total so far, counting eight commutations announced a few weeks ago, is just 18, but he still has two years to go....

A few months ago, Obama chose former ACLU attorney Vanita Gupta, a passionate critic of the war on drugs who emphasizes its disproportionate racial impact (a theme Obama and Holder also have taken up), to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.  A year before her appointment, Gupta had criticized Holder’s moves on drug sentencing as an inadequate response to mass incarceration.  The previous month, she had endorsed marijuana legalization. The next two years will show whether Gupta’s appointment is a sop to disappointed Obama supporters or a signal of bolder steps to come.

If Obama actually uses his clemency power to free thousands, or even hundreds, of drug war prisoners, that would be historically unprecedented, and it would go a long way toward making up for his initial reticence.  He could help even more people by backing sentencing reform, which has attracted bipartisan support in Congress.  And having announced that states should be free to experiment with marijuana legalization, he could declare the experiment a success....

If none of those things happens, Obama’s most significant drug policy accomplishment may be letting states go their own way on marijuana legalization.  Even if our next president is a Republican drug warrior, he will have a hard time reversing that decision, especially given the GOP’s lip service to federalism.

This piece reviews some important basics, though hard-core sentencing fans know that there is a lot more the Obama Administration could be doing to radically reshape the battlefield in the modern federal drug war.

On the marijuana front, for example, DOJ could (and I think should) play an significant role defending Colorado as it gears up a response to the recent Supreme Court suit brought Nebraska and Oklahoma attacking its marijuana reform efforts. In addition, DOJ could (and I think should) be willing to interpret broadly the recent provisions enacted by Congress precluding it from using funds to interfere with state medical marijuana reform efforts.

On the broad drug war front, Prez Obama and DOJ could not only support the Smarter Sentencing Act but even try to give renewed life to the Justice Safety Valve Act. The JSVA, which Senator Rand Paul introduced and robustly promoted, would effectively reform the operation of all mandatory minimum sentencing provisions. Also Prez Obama and DOJ, especially in light of renewed concerns about racial biases in criminal justice systems, could (and I think should) return to the issue of crack sentencing reform. Specifically, given the apparent success of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which only reduced the crack-powder disparity from the ridiculous 100-1 ratio to a ghastly 18-1, the Prez ought to get behind what I would call the Fully Fair Sentencing Act to eliminate any and all crack-powder sentencing disparity completely.

January 5, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Pot Prohibition Issues, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Outgoing Maryland Gov commutes final four state death sentences to life

As reported in this CNN article, "Outgoing Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley took the state's last four inmates off death row Wednesday, commuting their sentences to life in prison without parole in one of his final acts in office."  Here is more:

The move comes as the Democrat considers a run for president — a long-shot bid that many Democrats only expect to gain steam if Hillary Clinton opts not to run.

O'Malley's office announced the move in a release Wednesday morning, noting that the state's legislature had abolished the death penalty with a law that took effect in May 2013 and that the state's courts and attorney general have questioned whether the state has legal authority to carry out death sentences that were already imposed.

"In the final analysis, there is one truth that stands between and before all of us," O'Malley said in a statement.  "That truth is this — few of us would ever wish for our children or grandchildren to kill another human being or to take part in the killing of another human being. The legislature has expressed this truth by abolishing the death penalty in Maryland."

The four inmates whose sentences were commuted are Vernon Lee Evans Jr. and Anthony Grandison Sr., who were convicted of the 1983 contract killing of two witnesses scheduled to testify in a federal drug trial; Heath William Burch, convicted of killing an elderly neighbor couple in 1995; and Jody Lee Miles, convicted of robbing and shooting a theater manager in 1997.

O'Malley said in the statement that he'd met with the families of the victims of the four convicted killers whose sentences he commuted, and said they would suffer through "the additional torment of an un-ending legal process."

"In my judgment, leaving these death sentences in place does not serve the public good of the people of Maryland — present or future," O'Malley said.

Prior relates posts:

December 31, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

More notable new posts from the Collateral Consequences Resource Center

Because topics covered at the Collateral Consequences Resource Center are so interesting and get little attention in the mainstream media (or many other places in the blogoshere), I plan to continue noting in this space all the the notable posts regularly appearing at CCRC.  Here are a bunch more posts of notes from CCRC of as 2014 is winding down:

December 31, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Collateral consequences, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 01, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 06, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 17, 2014

ProPublica urges next AG to "Fix Presidential Pardons"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Regards,

Stephen Engelberg/Editor in Chief, ProPublica

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

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Could capital reprieve cost Colorado Gov his office?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 24, 2014

"Clemency and the Unitary Executive"

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 22, 2014

"It’s Time to Overhaul Clemency"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 15, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Defender hiccup or major headache for Clemency Project 2014?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 10, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

June 3, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Empirical explorations of modern capital clemency

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 02, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 16, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Download McDade opinion

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

Monday, April 28, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 26, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 24, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

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

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

Reactions to Paroline child porn restitution ruling:

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

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

Justice Department formally announces its clemency initiative plans and guidelines

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 21, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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