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December 24, 2009

Obama as Scrooge: no Christmas clemency grants

Scrooge As I complained in posts here and here and here around Thanksgiving, it was sad and telling that President Barack Obama's first use of his historic clemency power was to continue the modern (silly?) tradition of pardoning a turkey.  At that time, however, I was hoping that Prez Obama might be saving up some holiday clemencies for the Christmas season.  But now the Obamas have gone off to Hawaii on their vacation; as this official webpage reveals, Prez Obama has left behind on Christmas Eve nearly 3,500 requests for pardons and commutations sitting unresolved on his Oval Office desk.

In this new Huffington Post commentary, which is titled "What I Want For Christmas: Mass Clemency," Jacob Appel makes a fulsome pitch for all executive branch leaders to consider the granting of mass clemency this holiday season.  Here are some highlights:

[W]ith the United States now boasting the highest incarceration rate in the world -- more than 1 in every 100 Americans in currently behind bars -- our nation is long overdue for a mass clemency of non-violent felons and those unlikely to re-offend.  Such a collective pardon and commutation would reunite hundreds of thousands of families, save billions of dollars in incarceration costs, and might foster a national spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation....

So here's my Christmas wish: Each chief executive should order a special panel to determine, as quickly as possible, which prisoners either have a history of extreme violence or pose a high risk of re-offending.  Those meeting neither criteria should be transitioned home as quickly as possible....

One of the glaring -- yet too often overlooked -- failings of contemporary America is that we have become a nation obsessed with justice and retribution.  We claim to be The Land of the Free, yet we have lost sight of what it means to be imprisoned: denied liberty and access to one's family, subjected to isolation and violence and unspeakable boredom.  We have come to believe, in the most pernicious way, that people should get what they deserve.  What a sea change it might be in our public discourse and our civic life if we focused instead upon mercy and forgiveness.  A merciful and forgiving culture might find itself with less anger, less social disruption, and even less crime.  If we liberated only half of our prisoners, we could spend the billions of dollars saved educating children, or providing substance-abuse treatment to addicts, or training mental health workers -- breaking the cycle of neglect that sets future prisoners on their initial trajectory toward misconduct....

Fortunately, the majority of our more than two million prisoners are not fanatics and sociopaths. Many are good people who have exercised poor judgment.  They have the same hopes and dreams as ordinary, free Americans, but they now squander their lives behind bars because our prison-industrial complex has gone haywire.  They are, in short, the meek and wretched who the Biblical Jesus -- whether literal or figurative -- would want us to remember in our holiday prayers.

Will the White House read this column and decide upon a mass clemency?  Unlikely.  Such a bold step might make President Obama truly worthy of his Nobel Prize, and win him the praise of history, but political leaders of all stripes think in terms of poll numbers.  I suspect that a mass clemency could be sold to the American public -- particularly as more and more Americans find their own loved ones imprisoned -- but I understand that to attempt such a courageous step requires a leap of considerable faith.  I am more optimistic that, if enough people clamor for a mass clemency, one inspired state governor -- possibly a lame-duck chief executive without a political future -- will consider such a dramatic and compassionate act.  If that happens, and the social order does not crumble, other political leaders may have the courage to follow.  In the interim, I can only hope that the government lawyers assembling last-minute pardons lists, possibly as I write this, remember that each name they add to their clemency register is another flesh-and-blood human being who will be able to spent the Christmas holiday with his or her family.

While I am impressed by Appel's pitch for mass clemencies, I would have been grateful if President Obama would have granted even a single clemency before heading off to the islands.  In this Thanksgiving post, I called out President Obama and the criminal justice members of his White House team as turkeys.  Now, this Christmas Eve, the label Scrooge seems fitting for all these folks. 

Relatedly, as I have suggested before, I think that the media, public policy groups and the left side of the blogosphere also merit some spiritual grief this Christmas eve.  Save for an few commentaries like Appel's, there has been precious little media or blogosphere criticism of the failure of President Obama to bring any hope or change to modern federal clemency stinginess.  Sadly, far too many criminal justice groups and bloggers, who should be making a big stink about Obama's failure to show a true concern for the meek and wretched sitting in prison this holiday season, seem to be content tucked in their beds without stirring this night before Christmas.

Some related posts on federal clemency realities:

December 24, 2009 at 07:14 PM | Permalink


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I do have a problem with how pardon applications are handled. I don't care so much whether they are granted or not but they should at least get processing. Even if the process were a simple round file and a form letter denial.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Dec 24, 2009 9:21:17 PM

Whilst I agree that President Obama could and should show his personal commitment to addressing the enormous legacy of years of political abuse of the justice system, leading to the incredible and abhorrent over-sentencing and criminalization of so many US citizens (let alone executions), I fear it will take more than the grant of clemency to a few (probably high profile white-collar prisoners) to change the fundamentals. Jacob Appel at least recognizes the scale of the unjustified misery, which extends well beyond the walls of the nations prisons ... to sons and daughters, wives and husbands, mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers .... and on and on. Society is hurt and damaged beyond words for these excesses, yet politicians, and not a few in the justice system itself, continue to avoid the inevitable confrontation that must occur at some time soon, and meanwhile the costs mount ever higher.
Campaigning for a mere symbolic clemency is simply not enough. As he has fought for health care rights, so must he begin the process of making liberty and justice once again an essential core aim of his administration.

Posted by: peter | Dec 25, 2009 3:45:03 AM

There would be more clemency from Appeaser in Chief, Obama, if more prisoners were Taliban or Iranian. The HuffPost traitor will not say that.

"...meek and wretched sitting in prison..." Evidence of excess eggnog, like, "I love you, man." Is that the view of the lawyer of most of our criminals? The criminals are victims?

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 26, 2009 12:08:25 AM

Supremacy -
You might like to reflect on these quotations:
"I am mortified to be told that, in the United States of America, the sale of a book can become a subject of inquiry, and of criminal inquiry too."
Thomas Jefferson
"Every society gets the kind of criminal it deserves. What is equally true is that every community gets the kind of law enforcement it insists on."
Robert Kennedy
"The most dangerous criminal now is the entirely lawless modern philosopher. Compared to him, burglars and bigamists are essentially moral men."
Gilbert K. Chesterton
and Jefferson on Liberty:
"Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add 'within the limits of the law,' because law is often but the tyrant's will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual." Hence, for Jefferson, though government cannot create a right to liberty, it can indeed violate it. The limit of an individual's rightful liberty is not what law says it is but is simply a matter of stopping short of prohibiting other individuals from having the same liberty. A proper government, for Jefferson, is one that not only prohibits individuals in society from infringing on the liberty of other individuals, but also restrains itself from diminishing individual liberty.

Of course, we will all have our own interpretation and level of acceptance of these ideas and remarks.

Posted by: peter | Dec 26, 2009 4:36:26 AM

The last thing our bozo of a President needs is a replay of the end of Mike Huckabee's political ambitions. People like Eric Holder are soft on crime, as is Obama (e.g., his reaction to the Jena Six attack). What he does not need is for the public at large to have this fact shoved in its face.

I suspect you are not going to see a whole lot from President Obama on this front--until he's a lame duck.

Posted by: federalist | Dec 26, 2009 8:02:23 AM

If our prisoners are meek and wretched, then that is more evidence of the failure of the criminal law, and of the incompetence of the lawyer to run it.

I actually have more faith in the lawyer profession than the person who called them that. I just want the lawyers to get better at their essential utility product by becoming more modern, more scientific, and less into the rent (jacking the taxpayer and giving nothing back), more into profit (adding value). If it costs $50,000 to keep a prisoner, but only incapacitation is the goal, then you may be preventing 500 violent crimes a year, costing $10,000 each (and who knows how much in drops of real estate prices), for a total value of $5,000,000. Incapacitation has a ROI of 10,000%, guaranteed, with no risk of loss, if you have the right person in stir. How much would you give to prevent one of the 5 million violent crimes against yourself? How much is it worth it to you to not get jacked, to not get raped? Well the poor, and minority folks have the same feelings that you do. Those are the victims into whose neighborhoods the lawyer has herded crimes, and where only 1 in 100 crimes results in any consequence to the criminal.

As to the liberty your quotes so eloquently support, first must come the freedom from fear of being hit over the head for the dollar in your pocket. The lawyer has to see to that first, then let's get fancy about the other freedoms. Safety is the first task of government.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 26, 2009 8:16:26 AM

Peter: Saw your web site. It sounds as if everybody was a real low life, and all should have been executed long before they met the murder victim. But your case brings up a point.

Appellate courts should be able to review the facts of a case, and not just weasel, pretextual, procedural violations of law by the trial judge. Anyone can contradict the facts. Only a trained lawyer can write a brief on violations of law by a judge. That makes current death penalty appellate review a rent seeking operation, to generate lawyer jobs, not to get more accurate verdicts. Lawyer make work is worthless to the taxpayer.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 26, 2009 8:49:27 AM

federalist, you wish you had half the intelligence of our "bozo" of a President; half the charm, half the grace, half the determination, and half the wisdom.
You are to be pitied.

Posted by: anon15 | Dec 27, 2009 5:36:19 PM

Well, anon, I may be pitiable, but I don't get my history lessons from Andrew "We do not torture" Sullivan, nor do I yap about whether the Senate can refuse to seat a Senator before I read Powell v. McCormack. Nor do I think that they speak Austrian in Austria.

Obama is a lot less smart than advertised. And as for charm, well, I gave up that middle finger scratch move when I was in the 8th grade.

Posted by: federalist | Dec 27, 2009 7:56:34 PM

From the article: "One of the glaring -- yet too often overlooked -- failings of contemporary America is that we have become a nation obsessed with justice and retribution."

I confess to holding the view that the justice system should be obsessed with justice. Or maybe just seriously concerned, which would put it miles ahead of this airhead.

"We claim to be The Land of the Free, yet we have lost sight of what it means to be imprisoned: denied liberty and access to one's family, subjected to isolation and violence and unspeakable boredom."

I am happy to report that Jessica Lunsford in no longer bored.

"We have come to believe, in the most pernicious way, that people should get what they deserve."

I don't know what this fellow means by "pernicious," but I again confess, this time to thinking that people should get what they deserve. Oh horror!!!

"What a sea change it might be in our public discourse and our civic life if we focused instead upon mercy and forgiveness. A merciful and forgiving culture might find itself with less anger, less social disruption, and even less crime."

Apparently this guy has no interest in or memorty of the late 60's and 70's, when these same fruitcake ideas were in full throat, ushering in a doubling of the crime rate.

The author might not be the most ignorant person ever to show up on this blog, but he's giving it a good run.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 27, 2009 9:00:47 PM

We claim to be The Land of the Free, yet we have lost sight of what it means to be imprisoned: denied liberty and access to one's family, subjected to isolation and violence and unspeakable boredom.

People like Mr. Appel have "lost sight" in at least equal measure of why we have prisons in the first place. He starts off with a fair point--there are probably some people in prison who should not be there: i.e., society gets no benefit by keeping them there, and those people do not become less dangerous or more socially acceptable by staying. And perhaps executives should spend more time and effort figuring out who those people are and letting them out, because prison really sucks and most can agree that needless suffering is bad.

Then, as one of the commentors notes, the egg nog seems to kick in. And of course Mr. Appel piles on with the trite argument that "if you cut this program I don't like, you can spend the savings on education," all the while neglecting the expense he's asking the government to sustain on the front end by spending the time and effort to figure out who should be let out.

I understand the value of debate and competing perspectives, but some of the commentary that gets linked on this blog is so insipid and ignorant that I wonder if it's just being put up as flame bait or because the idea is to post as many pro-clemency commentaries as possible without regardless of quality.

I am intrigued by the fact that Obama hasn't pardoned or commuted the sentence of an actual human yet. What I would like to see from the pro-clemency folks, though, is actual examples of people they think should be freed. (This blog has done a few posts along those lines, I think.) Then we can have a more reasoned debate about this stuff. Of course, doing that would require actual work instead of regurgitating the bromides about how the US incarcerates more people per capita than Western Europe and how the evil the "system" of "conviction-obsessed prosecutors" has "lost sight of the humanity" of prisoners and how our prisons are full of harmless minority folks whose only sin was possessing an ounce of marijuana in the wrong place at the wrong time.

If past experience is any guide, individual appeals for clemency will still take the throw everything at the wall and see what sticks approach (e.g., if the person is a minority or if the prosecutor won any procedural disputes at all in court, there will be "substantial questions" about the person's guilt), but at the very least those things can be debated with reference to actual facts and with a specific action in mind that Obama or some governor should take.

These op-eds that basically say "Obama should really go find out who's worthy of a pardon and pardon those people" are easy to slap together and not very persuasive. I'd be more impressed if these clemency folks would put in some actual work.

Posted by: Draco | Dec 28, 2009 4:48:40 AM

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