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November 27, 2009

Fitting complaints about an ugly clemency scoreboard: "Turkeys 2, humans 0"

I am very pleased to see that Molly Gill, who serves as director of the commutations project for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and this op-ed in today's Washington Post headlined "Turkeys 2, humans 0."  Here are excerpts:

As his daughters and others watched on Wednesday, President Obama followed long-standing tradition and pardoned two turkeys in honor of Thanksgiving Day. The 40-pound Butterballs, Courage and Carolina, were flown to California and will live out their days at Disneyland. Unfortunately, Obama has failed to follow another tradition of sitting presidents: granting clemency to humans....

To be fair, it's not entirely Obama's fault.  The advent of "tough on crime" politics in the 1980s and a few controversial clemencies since then (think Marc Rich and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby) have made pardoning a political minefield.  Guarding the entrance to that mine field is the Office of the Pardon Attorney.  It reviews clemency requests and sends recommendations to the attorney general, who helps the president make final decisions about which offenders are worthy of mercy. For nearly a century, this review-and-refer system ran smoothly, and presidents typically approved hundreds of petitions for clemency each year -- mostly to run-of-the-mill, politically unconnected people.

But the system has broken down.  The Office of the Pardon Attorney's small staff is overburdened -- this year alone it has received more than 1,200 clemency requests. Beginning with the Clinton administration, the number of clemency applications has soared and shows little sign of dwindling. Applicants report filing their clemency petitions and never receiving a reply.  Applications often sit in the pardon attorney's office for years before they are, inevitably, denied. George W. Bush granted a paltry 200 pardons and commutations -- more than twice the number granted by his father but less than half the number granted by Clinton. Forty years ago, by the end of Lyndon B. Johnson's administration, almost 1,200 people had received the benefit of clemency.  We've come a long way, but not in the right direction.

Obama may have the power to grant clemency, but he can't use that power effectively unless the Office of the Pardon Attorney gives applicants a meaningful review and recommends worthy cases to the White House.

Executive clemency has too many valid and important purposes to disappear through lack of use.  Clemency gives hard-earned second chances to those who have turned their lives around.  It can fix the errors that inevitably crop up in our imperfect criminal justice system. Clemency can show mercy to elderly, sick or dying prisoners who aren't a threat to public safety.  And clemency restores valuable rights to people still struggling to find jobs because of foolish mistakes they made years ago.

None of these praiseworthy objectives can be met until Obama takes a hard look at the pardon system and fixes it. This year, the clemency score is turkeys, 2; humans, zero.  By this time next year, I hope that the clemency score favors more humans than turkeys.

As regular readers know, I share this concern for the lack of use of the clemency power.  But I would say this is fair to call this matter entirely the fault of President Obama and whatever members of his staff advise him on criminal justice matters and related policy issues.  President Obama has found the time to make a number of hard criminal justice choices concerning the closing of GTMO and the trial of terror suspects.  It should take a lot less time, even without any help from the Office of the Pardon Attorney, to find a few cases worthy of some kind of clemency relief from within the thousands of petitions.

Some related posts on federal clemency realities:

November 27, 2009 at 12:33 PM | Permalink


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Doug --

"President Obama has found the time to make a number of hard criminal justice choices concerning the closing of GTMO and the trial of terror suspects."

Two points here. First, I don't believe it's correct, or at least technically correct, to say that Obama made the choice to try terror suspects in civilian court. The administration and DOJ claim that that was Eric Holder's call.

And it may have been Holder's call in the first instance, but to believe that a matter of consequence actually goes through without White House approval is to live in fantasy land. So you're probably right, administration disclaimers notwithstanding.

Second, I don't think it's entirely fair to Obama to compare ordinary clemency decisions (or the lack thereof) to the decision about where to try the 9-11 terrorists. The latter, unlike the former, is a matter of compelling national and international importance. Ordinary clemency decisions are generally of interest only to the persons getting the clemency.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Nov 27, 2009 1:26:46 PM

The turkeys had not pled guilty to any crimes, nor had a jury found them guilty of any crimes beyond a reasonable doubt, nor is there even any suspicion that the turkeys had broken any laws, yet Courage and Carolina were in danger of being summarily executed and eaten. If Ms. Gill is aware of any humans in similar circumstances in the United States, I suspect that the Office of the Pardon Attorney might move those people to the front of the queue.

Posted by: Stan | Nov 27, 2009 2:48:27 PM

Nothing to discuss. Just beat their asses.


Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Nov 28, 2009 12:05:15 AM

Stan is truly fortunate this Thanksgiving weekend.

That he adheres to the notion only the guilty plead guilty means his house has been spared a grim lesson lots of Americans have learned the hard way.

Never mind the rich history of police-torture, rubber hose confessions.

Never mind the government's capacity (with draconian sentencing guidelines, vague, sweeping laws and few restraints on prosecutors) to make even the innocent and wrongly accused eager to confess.

Turkeys and people just get what they deserve, right Stan?

Posted by: John K | Nov 29, 2009 11:12:42 AM

This is why clemency is not granted very often: http://michellemalkin.com/2009/11/29/violent-felon-granted-clemency-by-huckabee-now-sought-in-lakewood-wa-police-ambush/

Huckabee's political career is over. And it should be.

Posted by: federalist | Nov 29, 2009 10:18:14 PM

There should be a tort of negligent clemency. All victims should be made whole after such carelessness.

Such a tort would allow clemency, but compensate the its victims.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Nov 30, 2009 8:10:26 AM

As to Clemmons, reminder.


Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Nov 30, 2009 8:15:21 AM

John K --

"Turkeys and people just get what they deserve, right Stan?"

No, they don't, as you correctly point out. Maurice Clemmons, for example, got something he distinctly did NOT deserve, that being a commutation of his 95 year prison sentence for being a violent felon.

Yesterday he used his undeserved freedom to murder four cops while they sat drinking their coffee.

You are a frequent critic of the "system." What accountability should the system impose on those who granted Clemmons his murder-laced freedom?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Nov 30, 2009 11:25:03 AM

How can people complain they lose a freedom, when a new law gives others more freedom? Like a law prohibiting?
outdoor smoking would give people who go outdoors the freedom to breath more fresh air and be healthier. Nonsmokers are the majority, so more people gain freedom than lose freedom.

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How is constitutional regard and personal freedom a Conservative Principle?
One it comes down to it Cons and Libs seem to have similiar goals, but different recipes. How is constitutional regard considered a conservative ideology or that personal freedom is a conservative principle?

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