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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 at 12:40 PM | Permalink


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To put it in perspective, The United States has an incarceration rate of 716 citizens out of every 100,000. Canada has a rate of 118 out of every 100,000 citizens and France 98 out of every 100,000.

You can surely assume that there is something out of proportion going on in our criminal justice system that should be fixed. That is why democrats and republicans who have looked at the burden on taxpayers and the erosion of civil liberties are taking a stand on this over criminalization and incarceration.

We need retroactive legislation for sentencing reform and also support for Presidential Commutations to right this costly systemic problem that has been created.

Perhaps we should consider group commutations and sentencing relief for categories of inmates. It seems obvious that this harsh sentencing should be corrected in the interest of fiscal responsibility and justice.

Posted by: beth | Apr 10, 2015 3:59:06 PM

Obama takes a lot of heat. From many quarters. In a hundred years the historians will review this 8 years and an aspect discussed will be how the media and pundits treated the first minority person to hold the high office. They will look to the Southern Strategy articulated by Lee Atwater and which can be found by Y'all if you Google his name and The Southern Strategy. Historians will say that the Lee Atwater strategy got a new turn when President Obama came into office. Ya don't have to say the N word three times anymore to get the bigot voter's attention. In 2015 you could just say Obama or ObamaCare. Or ObamaCareless. The South went all Red in the last mid term election. We will see if Hillary can get some of those states back into the Democratic fold. The pardon issue is not one to be raised by the Lee Atwater RepubliCons. Better they leave this one alone.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Apr 12, 2015 7:57:59 PM

I'm just a concerned citizen that thinks commutation of longer sentences should be given. Life without parole for drugs is just not right. cartel members don't get that much time. I don't think courts should rely on "hear say" testimony in trials. they should go on how much drugs were found, money, cars, houses, etc.

Posted by: hopeful | Apr 15, 2015 1:36:54 PM

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