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March 21, 2021

Another deep look into the deep connections that eased the path to a clemency grant by Prez Trump

I sincerely wish the press would start focusing a lot more on compelling cases of persons who have not received clemency in our (pandemic-scarred) nation defined by mass incarceration and mass punishment.  But I suppose I understand why there is still interest and concern about how Prez Trump made clemency decisions and about who won the most recent round of the federal clemency lottery. 

Today this story is front-page news in the New York Times under this full headline: "Access, Influence and Pardons: How a Set of Allies Shaped Trump’s Choices: A loose collection of well-connected groups and individuals led by a pair of Orthodox Jewish organizations had striking success in winning clemency for white-collar criminals during the Trump presidency."  Here are excerpts from this lengthy piece:

The efforts to seek clemency for [various] wealthy or well-connected people benefited from their social, political, or financial ties to a loose collection of lawyers, lobbyists, activists and Orthodox Jewish leaders who had worked with Trump administration officials on criminal justice legislation championed by Jared Kushner.

That network revolved around a pair of influential Jewish organizations that focus on criminal justice issues — the Aleph Institute and Tzedek Association — and well-wired people working with them, including the lawyer Alan M. Dershowitz, Brett Tolman, a former U.S. attorney for Utah, and Nick Muzin, a Republican operative....

Of the 238 total pardons and commutations granted by Mr. Trump during his term, 27 went to people supported by Aleph, Tzedek and the lawyers and lobbyists who worked with them. At least six of those 27 went to people who had been denied clemency through the official Justice Department process during the Obama administration.

Over the years, at least four of those who received clemency or their families had donated to Aleph. Others or their allies and families had retained people like Mr. Dershowitz, who represented Mr. Trump in his first impeachment trial, Mr. Tolman and Mr. Muzin to press their cases before the Trump administration, often working in parallel with Aleph and Tzedek, according to public records and interviews.

The groups were not the only ones who had success with Mr. Trump. Alice Marie Johnson, an advocate for fairer sentencing who had her own drug conviction pardoned by Mr. Trump, was credited by the White House for championing 13 clemency grants, many of which went to drug offenders and African-American defendants given disproportionately long prison terms.

While Aleph worked with Ms. Johnson on some clemency cases — including for people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes — Aleph, Tzedek and their allies stood out for their success at winning clemency for white-collar offenders who had left a damaging trail of fraud in their wake. The majority of those who won clemency with their help had been convicted of financial crimes.

It was a new chapter especially for Aleph, which has long worked on behalf of people facing dire situations in the criminal justice system. Aleph has for years appealed for more lenient sentencing rules and pressed judges to reduce jail time in individual cases, while providing social and religious services to prisoners and their families. It only began seeking presidential clemencies during the Obama administration — and failed to secure any such grants until Mr. Trump took office.

The leaders of Aleph, Tzedek and their allies played a role in helping build support for a sweeping rewrite of federal sentencing laws in 2018, winning bipartisan praise and bolstering their clout in the administration.....

In the world of criminal defense lawyers and clemency seekers, Aleph, Tzedek and the people working alongside them came to be seen as among the most effective avenues to clemency, including for financial crimes of the sort that are usually less likely to garner support from criminal justice activists.

A spokesman for Aleph said the group selected candidates based on factors including humanitarian concerns, clear demonstrations of remorse and its commitment to addressing what it often sees as excessively long sentences. He acknowledged that Aleph had accepted donations from people whose clemencies its officials later supported to one degree or another, but said the group did its clemency work at no cost, and would not accept donations from people while working on their clemencies.

I am eager to note here that I have worked with a variety of folks connected to the Aleph Institute in a variety of settings for more than a decade.  I have sometimes helped in various ways in specific cases in which Aleph is advocating for a particular defendant to serve less prison time, and I have often been eager to participate in various ways in the great criminal justice reform conferences that Aleph has helped put on.

A few of many recent related posts:

March 21, 2021 at 01:35 PM | Permalink


It was disappointing to see the piece criticizing Aleph and Tzadek for supporting clemency for people serving egregious sentences for financial crimes etc. Of those mentioned - the majority had been offered pleas and ultimately exercised their 6th amendment right to trial. If more research had been done, the article may have mentioned the role that the trial penalty played in these enormous sentences.

The Aleph Institute also advocated for nonviolent marijuana offenders serving life sentences. All of them had received these sentences after going to trial. We were enormously grateful for support for these individuals who did not pay a dime for the advocacy.

The statement that these clemency grants were made to individuals who had been denied clemency by Obama was beside the point. President Obama denied over 19,000 clemency petition, closed without comment over 4,000 and left 13,000 + petitions to the Trump administration. Of course these denials deserve a second look.


Posted by: beth curtis | Mar 21, 2021 10:23:40 PM

How many purely political pardons? Hard to see any justification for Duncan Hunter, Chris Collins, Paul Manafort. I suspect there are others.

Posted by: scott tilsen | Mar 22, 2021 9:50:14 AM

Having worked with Aleph only tangentially, I honestly have nothing but the highest praise for their work. They are one of the very few criminal justice reform organizations that are honestly advocating strictly for their own clients and not interested in simply taking donations.

They are particularly effective in their lobbying efforts inside the BOP system which is incredibly byzantine.

Posted by: Zachary Newland | Mar 22, 2021 10:59:29 AM

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