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January 5, 2009

Will we get more commutations from President Bush in the weeks ahead?

When it comes to executive clemency exercised by the President, pardon grants tend to generate the most headlines, whether it is President Ford's pardon for Nixon or President Clinton's pardon for Rich or President Bush's pardon (and take back efforts) for Toussie.  But, especially in our modern of extremely long federal sentences, I sure wish commutations would get move love and attention.  Helpfully, as evidenced by this column, Debra Saunders is with me on this front:

My fear is that the negative fallout from the Toussie story will prompt Mr. Bush to issue fewer pardons and commutations.  Mr. Bush has been too stingy with this power, even as the foolish inflexibility of federal mandatory minimum sentences has created many worthy recipients.  Among them: Clarence Aaron, who is serving a life-without-parole sentence for a first-time nonviolent drug offense.  Add Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean, two Border Patrol agents sentenced to 11 years and 12 years respectively for shooting and wounding a fleeing drug smuggler in 2005 and covering up the incident.

What's the difference between Aaron, Ramos and Compean and the individuals who rated a Bush pardon or commutation?  My guys aren't well connected, but they also were not career criminals. Aaron was a college student who made a serious criminal decision — and deserved to serve some prison time.  Ramos and Compean covered up the questionable shooting of a fleeing drug smuggler.  Yes, juries found all three men guilty, but juries had no input into their draconian sentences.

Only the president of the United States has the power to right the wrongness of their sentences. Only Mr. Bush can bring justice — for in these cases, a commutation would not bring mercy but justice — to men who have known mindless punishment without leavening proportion.  The outrage is not simply that a well-connected white, white-collar, criminal won a pardon.  It also would be an outrage if Mr. Bush failed to do right by Aaron, an unconnected African-American man serving life for a first-time nonviolent offense, and two Latino Border Patrol agents who, if they did break the law, did so in the heat of the chase, not the cool of a boardroom.

Notably, President Bush has now received some public praise for his most recent commutation.  Specifically, the recent commutation of the prison sentence of Reed Prior generated this two very positive pieces appearing in this Sunday's Des Moines Register:

The second of these pieces is an effective editorial which starts and ends this way:

To those who know Reed Prior, he seemed the last person who would be sentenced to life in federal prison. To those who know George W. Bush's reputation, he seemed the last president who would set Prior free in an act of mercy. Yet, both happened, and the irony reveals injustice not just in one case but in criminal sentencing in general....

In these cases, the criminal-justice system not only missed opportunities to salvage lives, but discarded them. A remarkable group of Iowans from across the business, political and social spectrum saw how such an opportunity was badly missed in Prior's case, and they got George W. Bush to agree.

It's time for members of Congress and state lawmakers to end the harm caused by wrongheaded drug prosecutions and mandatory prison sentences and ensure opportunities to salvage lives are not missed in the future.

Especially because I know of more than a few defendants sitting in federal prison whose cases justify serious clemency consideration, I hope that more commutations will be coming from the White House soon.  I am not holding my breath, but I am going to remain hopeful.  I am also going to urge President-elect Obama to get moving on commutations the minute he takes over this historic power.

January 5, 2009 at 04:59 PM | Permalink


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I fail to see why anyone would think the border agents are worthy of such consideration. Law enforcement personel need to be held to the strictest letter of the law given the latitude they are shown on the spirit.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jan 5, 2009 10:24:39 PM

First of all, I doubt that Bush will be afraid to issue pardons because of the Toussie problem. Like him or not, Bush tends to do the things he thinks are right without much regard for ephemeral public opinion.

Doug, perhaps you have hope for Obama given that he obviously has a pro-criminal bent. (Obama has spoken of the "just us" system and labeled a vicious six-on-one stomping of an unconscious student a "schoolyard fight"--that shows sympathy for criminals.) The problem, of course, is that Obama is (a) not stupid and (b) less than courageous about his core beliefs (one of which is sympathy for criminals). Obama would be a fool if he decided to grant clemency or pardons to a bunch of incarcerated felons because his presidency could depend on what those guys do when they get out. Obama also has never shown an ounce of political courage, and I doubt he starts by letting a bunch of felons out of prison.

Now I am not saying that's right. The federal prison system almost certainly has some inmates that deserve some mercy, and perhaps presidents should be doing more, but presidents, understandably, don't want to have their goals for the entire nation sidetracked by what some criminal does, and believe me, if the president lets someone go, and they wind up killing someone, that will be an issue. Doug, your failure to recognize this fact of life shows your naivete.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 6, 2009 10:13:11 AM

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