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March 29, 2016

Still more ugly details on the still ugly realities of the federal clemency process

Regular readers are probably tired of hearing me complain regularly about the failure of the Obama Administration to fix the many problems surrounding the modern federal clemency process.  But this new USA Today article, headlined "Former administration pardon attorney suggests broken system in resignation letter: Former Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff said she was unable to talk to the White House about pardons," provides still more grist for my clemency kvetching mill. Here is how the piece starts:

The Obama administration instructed Justice Department attorneys to neglect applications for presidential pardons to give priority to the Justice Department's initiative to release low-level offenders from prison, the former pardon attorney said in her resignation letter early this year. That inaction was one of several issues that former Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff cited in her letter, which was obtained by USA TODAY after making a Freedom of Information Act request. Leff resigned in January after less than two years as the official responsible for making clemency recommendations for the president.

Her resignation letter suggests a broken and bureaucratic process at odds with President Obama's own aim to exercise his pardon power "more aggressively" in the final months of his presidency. Leff wrote that the administration's focus on the clemency initiative at the expense of traditional pardons and commutations "means that the requests of thousands of petitioners seeking justice will lie unheard."

"This is inconsistent with the mission and values to which I have dedicated my life, and inconsistent with what I believe the department should represent," she wrote.

It's the job of the U.S. pardon attorney to investigate all of those cases and make a recommendation to the deputy attorney general, who then forwards it to the White House Counsel's Office and, ultimately, the president. Because the pardon attorney advises the president on sensitive cases, the process is cloaked in secrecy, and officials rarely discuss the process publicly. So Leff's letter offers a rare glimpse into how the pardon office works in the Obama administration. Unlike in previous administrations, where pardon office staffers and the White House had routine conversations, Leff said she was denied "all access to the White House Counsel's Office," which is the last step for a pardon application before being approved or denied by the president.

She said Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates had overruled her recommendations in an increasing number of cases — and that in those cases, the president was unaware of the difference of opinion. "I believe that prior to making the serious and complex decisions underlying clemency, it is important for the president to have a full set of views," she said.

And she said the Justice Department had not made good on its promise to put the required resources behind the clemency initiative. That initiative, part of a broader push for sentencing reform, was designed to use the president's constitutional pardon power to release federal inmates who would have received shorter sentences had they been sentenced under today's more lenient guidelines. It applies mostly to non-violent drug offenders serving sentences of 10 years or more, with good behavior while in prison.

March 29, 2016 at 08:09 AM | Permalink

Comments

It's interesting. Several on the Life for Pot site who were nonviolent marijuana offenders were turned down by Clemency Project 2014. I'm sure that is because of the length of their sentence and the fact that they were charged with conspiracy and went to trial.

Others with life sentences and similar circumstances received an attorney through CP-14. They were all nonviolent marijuana only inmates.

Some inmates received a CP-14 attorney and then they were denied after they thought they were being represented. I'm sure it's a daunting task to vet thousands of surveys. As always, I would like a more systemic solution to this problem. I would advocate that any nonviolent marijuana offender who has served 10 years should be seriously considered for a Commutation.

Posted by: beth | Mar 29, 2016 4:29:34 PM

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