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September 27, 2011

DOJ audit of federal clemency process with sound and fury signifying nothing

Over at Pardon Power, P.S. Ruckman has this great new post noting and linking to this lengthy new Justice Department internal reporttitled "See "Audit of the Department of Justice Processing of Clemency Petitions."  Here are highlights from Ruckman's review:

This Report finds that there was a time when the pardon power of the president was not in complete atrophy, but, in recent years very few pardons and commutations of sentence have been granted.  At the same time, the number of petitions has increased and the number of unaddressed petitions in the Office of the Pardon Attorney (backlog) has increased as well.

In the past three years, a record number of clemency applications (over 6,000) have denied - more than the number denied in the previous 13 years! As a result, some have suspected that applications have not been given serious review. Nonetheless, the Report does conclude that the Office of the Pardon Attorney (OPA) -- while having "few written polices and procedures for processing clemency applications" -- utilizes "a reasonable approach" in its investigation of the "merits" of clemency applications and to "develop its recommendations."  It also notes that the current pardon attorney has "increased the number of unpaid law student interns" in his office and brought the OPA support staff to six attorneys....

What the hand-wringing analysis of paper-pushing fails to recognize is the fact that the final decision is the president's and 1 out of ever 2 pardons granted over the last 39 years has been granted in a single month, December.  Why?  This Report sheds no light on the matter at all, at least not directly, or intentionally.  It only notes that petitions were "at the White House," on average, for 9.4 months, before a decision was made.

UPDATE:  The New York Times has this report on the report, which is headlined "Backlog Found in Action on Presidential Pardons," and begins this way: "The president’s power to reduce sentences and grant pardons is infrequently used, and backlogs in responding to clemency petitions are common, according to a new audit report from the Department of Justice."

In addition, Margaret Colgate Love sent me these astute comments on the report:

In focusing only on the efficiency with which clemency petitions are processed, the IG report ignores the quality of advice the President is getting from the Justice Department. For example, the report notes that the Pardon Attorney is handling all commutation petitions himself, without referring them to OPA staff lawyers.   It is hard to see how one lawyer, even assisted by support staff, could possibly have investigated and prepared a meaningful report on the over 3000 prisoner petitions that have been denied by President Obama in the past year.   (The report indicates that another 1000 petitions have been sent forward by the Pardon Attorney, likely to the same fate.)   This goes a long way toward explaining why this President has not granted a single commutation to date.

September 27, 2011 at 06:12 PM | Permalink


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This, to me, brings to mind the image of the president chuckling when asked about legalizing marijuana. My take on that was that his dismissiveness came not from his antagonism toward the idea, but rather he realized what an irrational and frenzied firestorm of crazed ranting would ensue if he spoke his mind. More importantly, many in the Democratic establishment would not have his back on that one, so he'd be out on his own. So what does this have to do with the lack of pardons? Mr. Obama wants to play it safe, not just with Republicans, but with his own party. Granting pardons is fraught with danger and the risk that he might engender opposition from his own party. Sadly, almost no one cares if he doesn't grant pardons, but a lot of people would care a great deal if he granted one controversial one. He wants to save the truly controversial moves for ones that will both motivate his base but also garner support from his own party.

I don't agree with this approach, and maybe I'm wrong, but that's what seems to me to be the problem.

Posted by: Anonymous | Sep 27, 2011 10:58:28 PM


Posted by: a | Sep 28, 2011 12:25:16 AM

Anonymous --

You portray a duplicitious and cowardly President who lies about what he really thinks and refuses, for crass political reasons, to make decisions he knows are just.

Isn't this the same guy who promised Hope and Change? The same guy who promised an "new way of doing things in Washington?"

On the other hand, maybe he's simply been distracted by the fact that, at long last, someone is looking into the White House pressure to hurry along the disastrous, but huge, taxpayer loan to Solyndra -- the company principally owned by one of his favorite fat cat bundlers.

Yes, well, I sure am glad we have "a new way of doing things in Washington."

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 28, 2011 10:33:42 AM

"Yes, well, I sure am glad we have "a new way of doing things in Washington."

Yes, lessons learned from a previous believer of this approach being none other than the 'Darth Vader' of Washington Dick Cheney and his compadres from Halliburton and a cast of others with well known AKAs. Which we continue to shell out unknown amounts of taxpayer dollars to bolster our false sense of security.

Posted by: Billy Bob | Sep 28, 2011 5:00:27 PM

I have personally spoken to someone at the Office of the Pardon's Attorney. She explained that the process was that first someone on staff investigates the petition, secondly they send it, with their findings, to the Assistant Attorney General who makes recommendations and sends it back to the Pardon Attorney, who then sends it to the President. I hope they are right and Margaret C. is wrong.

Posted by: msyoung | Sep 28, 2011 9:50:13 PM

Billy Bob --

Do you think this Administration is ever going to take responsibility for its own actions (and inactions) rather than, as you do, blame them on others who haven't held power for close to three really long years?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 28, 2011 10:08:18 PM

"blame them on others who haven't held power for close to three really long years?"

Hmmmn, how many years has this incestuous behavior been going on now? Is that 10+ years and counting? You sir, can most certainly be accused of having a grossly selective memory for a person whom I'm sure has many years under their belt.

Posted by: Billy Bob | Sep 29, 2011 5:15:48 PM

Billy Bob --

Gee, you missed the first part of the sentence. How did that happen? Just to refresh your memory, it was, "Do you think this Administration is ever going to take responsibility for its own actions...?"

What's your answer?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 30, 2011 6:43:12 PM

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