Monday, June 20, 2022

"The Trump Clemencies: Celebrity, Chaos, and Lost Opportunity"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Mark Osler now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

The presidency of Donald Trump may have produced the most chaotic use of the constitutional pardon power in American history. Trump granted clemency to war criminals, to close friends, to celebrities and to the friends of celebrities, with much of it coming in a mad rush at the end of his single term.  Buried beneath this rolling disaster was a brief moment of hope and  a lost opportunity: the chance for a restructure of the clemency process in the Fall of 2018, enabled by a rare alignment of factors including Trump’s alienation from the Department of Justice and the interest of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. This article explores the fullness of Trump’s clemency legacy and explores what was lost when a vehicle that could have helped stem over-incarceration died on the drafting table.

June 20, 2022 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

House Judiciary Subcommittee to hold oversight hearing on clemency and office of Pardon Attorney

As detailed at this official webpage, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security is holding a hearing tomorrow titled "Oversight Hearing on Clemency and the Office of the Pardon Attorney."  Interestingly, as detailed via this witness list, Representative Ayanna Pressley will be the first witness.  This press release from Rep. Pressley's office may provide a preview of what she plans to talk about:

Today, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (MA-07), along with Congresswoman Mary Gay Scanlon (PA-05), Congressman David Joyce (OH-14), and Congressman Kelly Armstrong (ND-AL) urged Pardon Attorney Elizabeth Oyer to release disaggregated demographic data on the more than 17,000 pending clemency applications to better understand the current broken clemency process and address its impacts on constituents and communities....

In their letter, the lawmakers asked Pardon Attorney Oyer to provide a report by June 7, 2022 on all pending clemency applications detailing applicant demographic data, month and year of application submission, representation by an attorney, type of clemency request, type of relief sought, type of offense(s), and office currently reviewing application....

In December, Rep. Pressley, along with Representatives Cori Bush (MO-01), Hakeem Jeffries (NY-08) and grassroots advocates, unveiled the Fair and Independent Experts in Clemency (FIX Clemency) Act, historic legislation to transform our nation’s broken clemency system and address the mass incarceration crisis. 

This new Bloomberg piece, headlined "Lawmakers Press DOJ on Backlog of 17,000 Clemency Petitions," provides some context for this letter:

Some advocates for clemency say it can be used to address racial inequity in the criminal justice system. Black inmates account for 38.3% of the federal prison population, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, despite making up only 13% of the US population.

Between 2012 and 2016, Black men received 19.1% longer sentences for the same federal crimes as White men, according to a 2017 US Sentencing Commission report. Another 2017 report from National Registration of Exonerations found Black people are more likely to be wrongfully convicted than White people and receive longer sentences.

“Every application represents a person, a family, and a community,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter. “And every delayed response represents a miscarriage of justice, a dysfunctional process, and a policy failure in desperate need of repair.”

I suspect Rep. Pressley's testimony to start this oversight hearing could prove to be real interesting.  And, following here, the hearing schedule sets out this all-start set of witnesses:

UPDATE:  As of the morning of the hearing, one can find the written testimony of all the scheduled witnesses at this official House Judiciary webpage.  The testimony makes for interesting reads, though the professional history of the witnesses make what they have to say generally predictable.

May 18, 2022 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, May 01, 2022

"Donald Trump’s Clemencies: Unconventional Acts, Conventional Justifications"

The title of this post is the title of this paper now available via SSRN and authored by Austin Sarat, Laura Gottesfeld, Carolina Kettles and Olivia Ward.  Here is its abstract:

During his four years as president Donald Trump’s use of the clemency power generated considerable controversy.  Much scholarship documents the fact that he ignored the traditional procedures for reviewing and approving requests for pardons and commutations and used clemency to favor a rogues’ gallery of cronies, celebrities and those whose crimes showed particular contempt for the law.  However, few scholars have examined the justifications he offered when he granted pardons and commutations.  This paper fills that gap.  We argue that because the clemency power sits uneasily with democracy and the rule of law when presidents use this power they feel the need to supply justifications.  We report on a study of Trump’s clemency justifications that suggests that while his clemencies themselves were often controversial and his means of communicating about them unconventional, the reasons he gave for them were generally quite conventional and continuous with the justifications offered by his predecessors for their pardons and commutations.

May 1, 2022 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 28, 2022

New timely issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter explores proposals for structural reform

I am very pleased to now be able to spotlight the latest greatest issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter, which I helped bring together.  This issues includes many great new articles on an array of federal sentencing topics, and the discussion of two notable federal bills proposing structural changes make the issues especially timely.  My Editor's Observations at the front of the issue is titled "Might Structural Changes Be the Next Step for Federal Sentencing Reform?," and here is an excerpt:

This Issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter shines a spotlight and provides context for two recent federal bills with a particular focus on criminal justice structure.  One, the Sentencing Commission Improvements Act, is relatively modest: consisting of just a few paragraphs, it provides for ‘‘a Federal Public or Community Defender designated by the Defender Services Advisory Group [to become an] ex officio, nonvoting member’’ of the U.S. Sentencing Commission.  The other bill is anything but modest: the Fair and Independent Experts in Clemency Act, or FIX Clemency Act, would create an ‘‘independent board to be known as the ‘U.S. Clemency Board,’’’ primarily tasked with reviewing and making recommendations to the president concerning clemency.  In addition to reprinting both of these bills and press releases from the members of Congress who introduced them, this Issue includes a series of original commentary discussing more broadly this particular moment in federal criminal justice reform.

Because they are full of substantive and rich insights, the original Articles in this Issue should be read in full and cannot be readily summarized here. However, having reviewed these Articles and the bills that partly inspired them, I am eager to introduce this Issue with a few musings about what I consider the important and unique symbolism that would necessarily accompany these proposed structural changes to the federal sentencing system.  Even with a change as modest as the Sentencing Commission Improvements Act, and especially with a change as notable as the FIX Clemency Act, Congress could send an important (and long overdue) message: that we need to alter the structures that have contributed to massive growth in the federal prison population.

April 28, 2022 in Clemency and Pardons, Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Prison Policy Initiative publishes report on "Executive inaction: States and the federal government fail to use commutations as a release mechanism"

PPIThe main theme of this new Prison Policy Initiative report on clemency (and the lack thereof) is captured in this subtitle data point: "Our survey of eight states found an average of one commutation for every 10,000 imprisoned people each year."  Here are a few excerpts from a new data report that should be read in full:

If Biden intends to truly deliver on his promises to enact large-scale criminal justice reform, this set of commutations should merely mark the beginning of a broader initiative. In fact, nothing is holding him back: the President has the power to grant commutations to large categories of people in federal prisons independently — without any action by Congress, the Department of Justice, or another third party. Despite this broad power, most U.S. presidents in the era of mass incarceration have been hesitant to use their powers of commutation.

In 2021, at the request of advocates working on clemency reform in the northeast, we submitted records requests to eight northeastern states seeking information about their commutation processes. As our survey of these eight states finds, state executive branches also chronically underuse their commutation powers. The states in our sample reported granting just 210 commutations from 2005 through mid-2021, for a total average of 13 grants a year across the eight states. For comparison, the average total prison population across these eight states from 2005 to 2020 was about 130,000 — meaning that each year, this group of states commuted about one out of every 10,000 sentenced and imprisoned individuals. In fact, five of the states each reported granting just five commutations or fewer over the 16.5 years for which we requested data. And concerningly, almost no states in the sample increased their rate of commutations during the pandemic, at a time when reducing prison populations is critical to save lives....

Looking past the commutations granted by President Biden and at the operation of the federal clemency process more generally — it is clear that changes to the status quo are necessary. First, there is far too great a backlog in federal clemency applications. Data released on April 1, 2022 showed that approximately 18,270 applications for federal clemency are pending, nearly 15,000 of which are for a commutation of sentence. And, until April 2022, all of the 2,415 applications for clemency that had been acted on since the President took office in January 2021 had been administratively closed. This means that Biden had taken no action to either grant or deny clemency applications....

Historically, commutations were used much more frequently. In Massachusetts, for example, 218 commutations were granted in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, and 84% of them went to people serving life sentences for murder. Connecticut was still granting regular commutations even more recently: The state granted 36 commutations between 1991 and 1994.

But grants have since slowed down drastically and become exceedingly rare across the country. Massachusetts granted just 29 commutations in the 80s, 90s, 2000s, and 2010s; Connecticut reported granting five from 2016 to mid-2021. Today, commutations are often explicitly reserved for — or in practices, awarded only to — narrowly defined groups, such as people who have served at least half of their sentence or those convicted of “nonviolent” offenses.

April 27, 2022 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Prez Biden finally uses his clemency pen to grant three pardons and 75 commutations

Because I always am inclined to say better late than never, I was quite pleased to wake up to the news that President Joe Biden is finally starting to make good on his  campaign promise to "broadly use his clemency power for certain non-violent and drug crimes."  This USA Today piece, headlined "Biden to pardon three felons, commute sentences of 75 others, in first grants of clemency," provides these details:

The nation's first Black Secret Service agent on a presidential detail, now 86 years old living in Chicago, who has worked decades to clear his name for a crime he has said he didn't commit. A 51-year-old woman from Houston who served seven years in prison for attempting to transport drugs for her boyfriend and accomplice – neither of whom faced charges. And a 52-year-old man from Athens, Georgia, who partners with schools to employ youth at his cellphone repair company, two decades after he was charged for letting pot dealers use his pool hall to sell drugs.

Three convicted felons – Abraham Bolden Sr., Betty Jo Bogans and Dexter Eugene Jackson – are receiving presidential pardons from President Joe Biden, along with 75 others whose sentences the president is commuting Tuesday, in the first use of clemency power of the Biden presidency.  All of Biden's commutations target individuals serving sentences for low-level drug offenses, some of whom have served on home confinement during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Many are Black or brown, and the White House said each has displayed efforts to rehabilitate themselves.

The clemency announcements, which coincide with national "Second Chance Month," come as Biden will also announce new actions aimed at improving outcomes for felons who reenter society. That includes $145 million for a federal program to train the incarcerated for future employment and the removal of criminal history in applications for Small Business Administration grants.

"America is a nation of laws and second chances, redemption, and rehabilitation," Biden said in a statement. "Elected officials on both sides of the aisle, faith leaders, civil rights advocates, and law enforcement leaders agree that our criminal justice system can and should reflect these core values that enable safer and stronger communities. During Second Chance Month, I am using my authority under the Constitution to uphold those values by pardoning and commuting the sentences of fellow Americans."...

The individuals granted clemency came at the recommendation of the Department of Justice's pardon attorney, according to senior Biden administration officials who briefed reporters about the announcement. It marks a return of a practice that was largely bypassed by former President Donald Trump, whose clemency requests often came through close aides. Biden said the three people pardoned have each "demonstrated their commitment to rehabilitation and are striving every day to give back and contribute to their communities."...

Nearly one-third of the 75 commutation recipients would have received lower sentences if they had been charged today under the Trump-era criminal justice law, the First Step Act, according to senior Biden administration officials. They have served an average of 10 years in prison and have "shown resilience" in seeking a productive path forward, a White House official said.

The official statement from Prez Biden on these grants is available at this link, and its start provides links to all those granted clemency and other executive action on the reentry front:

America is a nation of laws and second chances, redemption, and rehabilitation. Elected officials on both sides of the aisle, faith leaders, civil rights advocates, and law enforcement leaders agree that our criminal justice system can and should reflect these core values that enable safer and stronger communities.  During Second Chance Month, I am using my authority under the Constitution to uphold those values by pardoning and commuting the sentences of fellow Americans.

Today, I am pardoning three people who have demonstrated their commitment to rehabilitation and are striving every day to give back and contribute to their communities.  I am also commuting the sentences of 75 people who are serving long sentences for non-violent drug offenses, many of whom have been serving on home confinement during the COVID-pandemic — and many of whom would have received a lower sentence if they were charged with the same offense today, thanks to the bipartisan First Step Act.  

My Administration is also announcing new steps today to support those re-entering society after incarceration.  These actions include: a new collaboration between the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Labor to provide job training; new grants for workforce development programs; greater opportunities to serve in federal government; expanded access to capital for people with convictions trying to start a small business; improved reentry services for veterans; and more support for health care, housing, and educational opportunities. 

Though I am still a bit salty that it took Prez Biden 15+ months in office before using his clemency pen, I am pleasantly surprised to see a large number of grants and many commutations to persons serving lengthy terms terms for drug offenses.  From a quick scan, it looks like perhaps more than a third of those who received commutations are women, which reminded me of the statements of Prez Trump clemency recipient Alice Marie Johnson that there were thousands of persons like her in prison who deserved commutation.  (BOP data show the federal prison population is comprised of less than 7% women, though I sense that much more than 7% of the most mitigated cases involve women.)

A few of many prior recent related posts:

April 26, 2022 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (8)

Monday, April 25, 2022

Arizona court rejects condemn man's petition objecting to too many law enforcement members on state Board of Clemency

This new NPR piece, headlined "In rejecting death row inmate's case, judge says law enforcement isn't a profession," reports on this interesting state court ruling from last week concerning the Arizona clemency process. Here are the details and context:

An Arizona inmate who is mere weeks away from his scheduled execution argued the state's clemency board was unfairly loaded with law enforcement. But a state judge has disagreed, saying that law enforcement does not meet the definition of a "profession."

Earlier this month, the Arizona Supreme Court issued an execution warrant – the first in eight years – for Clarence Wayne Dixon, a 66-year-old prisoner convicted of first-degree murder. But Dixon's attorneys argued Tuesday that the Arizona Board of Clemency, which is set to meet on April 28 to decide whether to stay the execution, is illegally made up of too many members who had careers in law enforcement.

This past Tuesday, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Stephen Hopkins ruled against Dixon. "Historically, law enforcement has not been thought of as a "profession," Hopkins said in his decision. "It is not regulated as other professions are, and has little of the characteristics of what is typically considered a profession."...

Arizona law prohibits "No more than two members from the same professional discipline" from serving on the clemency board at the same time. The current board is made up of: one former superior court commissioner and assistant attorney general; a former federal agent with over 30 years' experience; a retired officer who spent 30 years with the Phoenix Police Department; and a 20-plus-year detective, also with the Phoenix PD. The fifth seat on the board is currently vacant.

Dixon was serving seven life sentences for the 1985 kidnapping, rape and assault of a Northern Arizona University student, according to court documents, when investigators connected him with a murder that took place seven years earlier. In 2001, DNA evidence linked Dixon to the January 1978 murder of Deana Bowdoin, a 21-year-old student at Arizona State University. She was found dead in her apartment, having been strangled and stabbed. A jury sentenced Dixon to death in 2008....

Dixon's execution, which appears all but certain at this time, will be the first to be carried out in Arizona since the botched execution of Joseph Rudolph Wood in 2014. Wood's execution should have taken a matter of minutes, NPR previously reported, but instead, the prisoner took more than two hours to die.

Based on the ruling, it seems that Dixon also asserted a due process violation, perhaps based only on the statutory requirement or maybe independently.  The court address that issue this way: "To be sure, courts have recognized due process rights in connections with boards of parole, pardon, or clemency.  See generally Chapter Three, The Law of Probation and Parole.  However, to the Court’s knowledge no case anywhere has recognized a due process right in the particular makeup of such a board."

April 25, 2022 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Wouldn't a few marijuana offenders be a "light lift" for Prez Biden's first clemency grants?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy New York Post article headlined "Ahead of 4/20, pot prisoners push Biden to honor campaign pledge to free them." I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

On the eve of the 4/20 cannabis holiday, federal inmates again are wondering if and when President Biden will make good on his 2020 campaign pledge to free “everyone” locked up on marijuana charges.  About 2,700 inmates are behind federal bars on pot-related charges — even though 18 states and DC now allow recreational use of the drug and two-thirds of Americans support legalization.

They include Pedro Moreno, 62, who is serving a life sentence after pleading guilty to distributing weed imported from Mexico from 1986 to 1996. “I will die in prison for marijuana unless I receive executive clemency,” Moreno told The Post....

Clemency advocates recently met with White House staff and believe Biden may eventually intervene.  But that it may not happen anytime soon as other initiatives take priority, such as commuting the sentences of people released temporarily from prison due to the COVID-19 pandemic....

Luke Scarmazzo, 41, has served 14 years of a 22-year sentence for running a medical marijuana operation in California and told The Post that he’s also struggling to maintain hope.  “When President Biden made those statements on the campaign trail, my family and I were very hopeful that our nightmare was finally coming to an end,” Scarmazzo said. “We are now nearly two years into President Biden’s term and we’re wondering when he will make good on his promise.”

Donald Fugitt, 37, noted how the country has changed in the decade since he was arrested in 2013.  “Another 4/20 and everybody is smoking and making money, but I’m still in a COVID-19-infested prison,” said Fugitt, a North Texas native who gets out in 2024 unless Biden reduces his sentence.  “I’ve accepted responsibility for my participation in a marijuana conspiracy. Everyone on my case is home except me. This was my first offense.”

Federal pot inmates include Lance Gloor, 43, who has two years left of a 10-year sentence for running dispensaries in Washington that he says sold state-legal medical marijuana, though federal prosecutors disagreed.  Gloor’s mother, Tracie Gloor Pike, says he had a severe case of COVID-19 last year and suffers rare complications....

Biden said on a debate stage in 2019: “I think we should decriminalize marijuana, period.  And I think everyone — anyone who has a record — should be let out of jail, their records expunged, be completely zeroed out.” But Biden hasn’t yet used his clemency powers to release anyone from prison....

Weldon Angelos, a former federal marijuana inmate and co-founder of the group Mission Green, helped craft a rubric that would ensure only non-violent prisoners are released and told The Post he has been involved in talks with the White House. “Candidate Biden promised to use his pardon power to free those still incarcerated federally for cannabis offenses, which gave a lot of hope to many,” Angelos said. “We have had a number of conversations with the White House of this topic and believe that Biden will keep his campaign promise. When that happens is another matter entirely, but we are encouraged.”...

Amy Povah, founder of the CAN-DO Foundation, which advocates for clemency for non-violent offenders, told The Post, “I’m not sure why we are still waiting for President Biden to free all the pot prisoners.” Povah said, however, that “I’m encouraged to see there is a new pardon attorney,” Elizabeth Oyer, who will vet clemency paperwork.  “[Oyer is] a former public defender. She is a refreshing choice since previous pardon attorneys have typically been prosecutors who often have a punitive mindset toward applicants,” Povah said....

In January 2021, then-President Donald Trump commuted the sentences of seven people serving life terms for marijuana — including two men who were given life without parole under the three-strikes provision of the Biden-authored 1994 crime law.

Michael Pelletier, a 65-year-old wheelchair-bound paraplegic, was among those released by Trump. He had a life sentence for smuggling Canadian pot into Maine before both legalized recreational markets.

“I thank President Trump every day that I wake up in a comfortable bed in a beautiful home in Florida surrounded by loving family, rather than the screeching sound of the PA system announcing another lock down due to violence,” Pelletier said. “It breaks my heart knowing there are still people serving life without parole for cannabis. I hope Biden will free all pot prisoners because I personally know several people who voted for him based on that campaign promise alone.”

A few on many prior recent related posts:

April 19, 2022 in Clemency and Pardons, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, April 15, 2022

Justice Department has new Pardon Attorney who is a former public defender ... which means ...?

I was pleased last night to see this great Twitter thread from Mark Osler spotlighting that the US Department of Justice this week officially has a new Pardon Attorney.  As this new DOJ bio details, she is Elizabeth (Liz) G. Oyer who before her Justice Department appointment served as "Senior Litigation Counsel to the Office of the Federal Public Defender for Maryland, where she represented indigent defendants at all stages of proceedings in federal district court [and] handled a wide variety of criminal cases, ranging from complex fraud to drug and gun offenses, as well as violent crimes."  Professor Osler, who is a leading national expert on federal clemency, has lots of good background in his thread about the appointment, and I am hopeful he does not mind my highlighting some of his key points here:

We've had "Acting" pardon attorneys for the past five or six years, so it means something that Pres. Biden has actually filled this slot. It's also significant -- and positive -- that he has given a career defender an important job in the Department of Justice.

However, this doesn't "fix" the backlog of petitions -- or promise a future fix of the backlog -- because it appears the problem there may not have been the Pardon Attorney, but the bureaucracy that takes up the petitions after they are evaluated by the pardon attorney (DAG & WHC)....

There are over 18,000 pending petitions, many of them now years old (including unresolved petitions from the Obama administration).  It's a mess.  We just know what kind of mess, or where the mess is located.  The whole thing needs reform.

For a host of reasons, I am eager to see the federal clemency process completely removed from the Department of Justice, and so I support the FIX Clemency Act, discussed here, and other proposals to have an independent body assist the President in his exercise of his constitutional clemency authority.  But as long as the current messy structure remains in place, it is encouraging to see that an experiences defense attorney has been placed into this important role.   As ProPublica highlighted a decade ago, a DOJ Pardon Attorney eager to find reasons not to recommend clemency grants can really muck up the process in ugly ways.  I am inclined to believe a former public defender is going to be more eager to find reasons to recommend grants.

in the end, none of this means much if Prez Biden (and anyone advising him on these matters) is disinclined to make use of the constitutional clemency authority.  Of course, candidate Joe Biden promised to "broadly use his clemency power for certain non-violent and drug crimes."  But, a full 15 months into his administration, Prez Biden has not granted a single pardon and has not granted a single commutation.  With more than 18,000 applications pending, not to mention many low-risk, COVID-vulnerable persons released to home confinement by the Trump Administration, it ought not be that hard to find at least a handful of "non-violent and drug" offenders who deserving of clemency during Second Chance Month.  Whomever is in charge of the matters at DOJ, where these is a clemency will there is surely a clemency way.  As of now, though, it does not appear that Prez. Biden really has much of a clemency will. 

A few on many prior recent related posts:

April 15, 2022 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, April 01, 2022

A second chance for Prez Biden to follow his proclamation about Second Chance Month with some clemency grants

In this post last year, I highlighted some language from the White House's "Proclamation on Second Chance Month, 2021" while stressing that Prez Biden has one particularly important second chance power, namely his historic constitutional clemency authority.  But, a year later, we are sadly still without a single clemency grant from Prez Biden — we had three from Prez Trump by this point in his term — and yet we do now have another White House second chance proclamation.  Here are some passages (and my added emphasis):

April marks Second Chance Month, when we reaffirm the importance of helping people who were formerly incarcerated reenter society. America is a Nation of second chances, and it is critical that our criminal and juvenile justice systems provide meaningful opportunities for rehabilitation and redemption.  It is also vital that we address both the root causes of crime and the underlying needs of returning citizens using resources devoted to prevention, diversion, reentry, trauma-informed care, culturally-specific services, and social support.  By supporting people who are committed to rectifying their mistakes, redefining themselves, and making meaningful contributions to society, we help reduce recidivism and build safer communities.

Every year, over 640,000 people are released from State and Federal prisons.  More than 70 million Americans have a criminal record that creates significant barriers to employment, economic stability, and successful reentry into society.  Thousands of legal and regulatory restrictions prevent these individuals from accessing employment, housing, voting, education, business licensing, and other basic opportunities.  Because of these barriers, nearly 75 percent of people who were formerly incarcerated are still unemployed a year after being released.

We must rethink the existing criminal justice system and whom we send to prison and for how long; how unaddressed trauma and abuse create pipelines to incarceration; how people are treated while incarcerated; how prepared they are to reenter society once they have served their time; and how the racial inequities that lead to disproportionate numbers of incarcerated people of color and other underserved groups.

My Administration recognizes that making the criminal and juvenile justice systems more equitable, just, and effective requires a holistic approach.  It requires eliminating exceedingly long sentences and mandatory minimums that keep people incarcerated longer than they should be. It requires quality job training and educational opportunities during incarceration. It requires providing formerly incarcerated individuals with opportunities to enter the workforce, reunite with their families, find stable and safe homes, and access health care.  It requires expunging and sealing certain criminal records so that people’s futures are not defined by their past....

NOW, THEREFORE, I, JOSEPH R. BIDEN JR., President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim April 2022 as Second Chance Month.  I call upon all government officials, educators, volunteers, and all the people of the United States to observe the month with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities.

I like the all the sentiments in this proclamation, but Prez Biden has to start "walking the walk" instead of just "talking the talk."  The federal sentencing system has many individuals serving "exceedingly long sentences and mandatory minimums that keep people incarcerated longer than they should be."  As one detailed example, this terrific recent research paper authored by Alex Fraga, who serves as a Senior Research Associate at Ohio State's Drug Enforcement and Policy Center, documents the thousands of persons subject to federal life sentences for drug offenses.   Prez Biden can and should, today and tomorrow and every day he is in office, use his clemency pen to begin the process of "eliminating exceedingly long sentences" in the federal system.  To its credit, this proclamation notes that " racial inequities that lead to disproportionate numbers of incarcerated people of color and other underserved groups."  Dr. Fraga's report highlights this reality in one context, as she details at lengthy just how "racial disparity in the imposition of life or de facto life sentences in the federal system for drug offenses is glaring."  Again, Prez Biden can take direct action to start to remedy these problems with some commutation grants.

Turning to the discussion of re-entry, the proclamation rightly call for more "expunging and sealing [of] certain criminal records so that people’s futures are not defined by their past."  However, in the federal criminal justice system, there is currently no statutory mechanism for expunging or sealing of any federal criminal records, and thus only the pardon power can eliminate a federal criminal record creating "significant barriers to employment, economic stability, and successful reentry into society."  Of course, since millions of Americans labor with federal criminal records, it would be unrealistic to expect Prez Biden or any president to conduct mass pardoning.  But it would still be quite important and impactful, while preaching about second chances, to at least do some pardoning of at least a few who obviously deserve this kind of second chance.  And, to be potentially more effective in this context and others, Prez Biden should be urging Congress to enact federal statutory tools for expungement and record sealing comparable to what exists (and is often getting expanded) in every single state across our great nation.  

I could go on and on, but I will close simply by asserting that it feels a bit like an April Fool's joke for the President to "call upon all government officials, educators, volunteers, and all the people of the United States to observe the [Second Chance] month with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities" when he himself so far has done so little direct second chance work.  Sigh.

Prior related post from last year:

April 1, 2022 in Clemency and Pardons, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (16)

Friday, March 11, 2022

North Carolina Gov, following recommendation of state Juvenile Sentence Review Board, commutes sentence of three convicted of murder as teens

As detailed in this North Carolina Gov press release, "Governor Cooper has commuted the sentences of three people who were convicted for crimes committed when they were teenagers. The commutations follow an intensive review of their cases, including the length of their sentences, their records in prison, and their readiness to succeed outside of prison." Here is more from the press release (with links from the original):

The commutations are the first recommended to the Governor by the Juvenile Sentence Review Board which he established by Executive Order last year. The commutation applications were thoroughly reviewed by the Office of Executive Clemency, the Office of the General Counsel and the Governor.  These commutations end prison sentences on time served.

The creation of the Review Board followed the change in North Carolina law which raised the age of juvenile jurisdiction to include 16- and 17-year-olds, making North Carolina the last state in the nation to do so.  Studies of brain development and psychology show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds and behavior, and state and federal law treat children differently from adults for the purpose of sentencing.

The Review Board was also part of a series of recommendations from the Governor’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice (TREC) that has worked to rectify racial disparities in the criminal justice system. More than 80 percent of people committed to North Carolina prisons for crimes they committed as juveniles are people of color.

“North Carolina law continues to change to recognize that science is even more clear about immature brain development and decision making in younger people,” Cooper said. “As people become adults, they can change, turn their lives around, and engage as productive members of society.”

The three people whose sentences were commuted are:

  • April Leigh Barber, 46, who has served 30 years in prison for her role at age 15 in the murders of her grandparents, Lillie and Aaron Barber, in Wilkes County. While incarcerated, Ms. Barber has been consistently employed and has participated in significant programming, including earning her G.E.D. and paralegal certificate. Link to commutation.
  • Joshua McKay, 37, who has served 20 years in prison for the murder at age 17 of Mary Catherine Young in Richmond County. While incarcerated, Mr. McKay has been consistently employed, including as a carpenter and welder. Mr. McKay’s projected release date absent this commutation would have been in November 2022. Link to commutation.
  • Anthony Willis, 42, who has served 26 years in prison for the murder at age 16 of Benjamin Franklin Miller in Cumberland County. While incarcerated, Mr. Willis has been consistently employed and has completed five college degrees. Link to commutation.

The three people will be subject to post-release supervision by Community Corrections at the North Carolina Department of Public Safety to help them succeed and avoid missteps when they return to their communities.  “Most of the individuals who enter prisons will return to their communities one day. Providing high quality, evidenced based treatment and programming is a top priority for our prison system,” said Department of Public Safety Secretary Eddie Buffaloe. “These commutations should inspire individuals who are incarcerated to use all available resources to better themselves and prepare for a successful return to society.”

The Review Board continues to review petitions from those who were incarcerated for crimes committed as juveniles, and looks at many factors in its review, including rehabilitation and maturity demonstrated by the individual, record of education or other work while incarcerated, record of good behavior or infractions, input from the victim or members of the victim’s family, and more.

March 11, 2022 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Clemency and Pardons, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, February 21, 2022

Taking time to celebrate the clemency power on Presidents' Day

I suppose on a President's Day we ought to celebrate all of Article II of Constitution, but regular readers will not be surprised by my eagerness to focus particularly on the last couple dozen words of Article II, Section 2, Clause 1: "The President ... shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment."  Much could and should be said about clemency circa 2022, but I will be mostly content here to flag a few older pieces about the clemency work of Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln:

From Fox News, "Presidents Day: Newly discovered Washington, Lincoln letters delve into pardon power, clemency"

From the Smithsonian Magazine, "The First Presidential Pardon Pitted Alexander Hamilton Against George Washington"

From Friends of the Lincoln Collection, "Lincoln’s Clemency: The Policy Limits"

Of course, there is a whole lot of great new academic writing about about clemency, largely because Prez Trump's controversial use of this king-like power generated a whole lot of commentary about what he actually did and what he might do.  For those taking stock, Prez Trump granted executive clemency to 237 individuals though his full term.  As is the unfortunate modern tendency, his clemencies were bunched mostly at the end of his term: he had granted just two clemencies (one pardon, one commutation) by the time of his second Presidents' Day in office, and he had granted only about a dozen more by the end of his second year in office. 

Prez Biden, though pledging as a candidate to "broadly use his clemency power for certain non-violent and drug crimes," has yet to grant a single clemency.  But, because there has been some buzz about possible clemencies, I am hopeful Prez Biden will soon live up to his campaign promise and improve on Prez Trump's record here.  But, even if Prez Biden gets his clemency pen out soon, I strongly believe the clemency process needs to be vastly improved and I hope that the FIX Clemency Act introduced in US House late last year might start getting some attention.

And though there is much more worth saying on this front, I will close will a final bit of academic celebration through a link to a great article by Professor Mark Osler that, at least for me, can capture the spirit of the day simply through its title: "Clemency As The Soul Of The Constitution."

February 21, 2022 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, February 06, 2022

Intriguing squabble in Idaho over capital commutation authority

This AP article, headlined "Judge says Idaho governor can’t veto clemency for condemned man," reports on a new state ruling concerning who has capital commutation authority in the Gem State.  Here are some of the details:

A judge says Idaho’s governor doesn’t have the power to veto a clemency recommendation by the state’s parole board for a terminally ill man who was expected to be executed this year. The ruling from 2nd District Judge Jay Gaskill on Friday says putting Gerald Pizzuto Jr. to death would be illegal and so the court won’t issue a death warrant — a required document before an execution can occur. Gov. Brad Little’s office vowed to appeal.

Pizzuto, 66, has been on death row for more than three decades after being convicted for the July 1985 slayings of two gold prospectors at a cabin north of McCall. He was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection last year, but after a clemency hearing the Idaho Commission of Pardons and Parole voted 4-3 to recommended that Pizzuto’s sentence be changed to life in prison. The board cited Pizzuto’s poor health — he has terminal bladder cancer, heart disease and diabetes as well as decreased intellectual function — and said commutation would be an act of mercy.

Little, however, rejected the recommendation and said he wouldn’t commute Pizzuto’s sentence. Little noted the man committed the Idaho slayings shortly after being released from prison in Michigan, where he had been convicted of rape.

Pizzuto’s attorneys with the Federal Defender Services of Idaho went to court, with attorney Jonah Horwitz arguing last month that while Idaho’s Constitution gives the governor the power to grant temporary reprieves from execution, it stops far short of allowing the governor to override the parole board’s commutation recommendation.

Attorneys for the state had argued a phrase added by amendment in 1986 to the relevant section of the constitution, “only as provided by statute,” meant that the Legislature could modify the way commutation and parole powers are carried out. Deputy Attorney General LaMont Anderson told Gaskill during oral arguments that the Legislature had done exactly that in a state law that said the parole board could recommend commutation, but the governor must approve.

In Friday’s ruling, Gaskill said the final decision on commuting a sentence rests with the parole board and not the governor. “If the drafters intended to allow the governor to have the power of commutation, which is greater than the power to grant respites and reprieves, the drafters could have specifically stated this,” Gaskill said, pointing out that the constitutions of several other states including Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona and Pennsylvania do explicitly give commutation power to the governor.

The judge also noted that the section of Idaho’s Constitution detailing the parole and commutation powers had been amended a few times throughout the state’s history — most recently in 1986 — but none of the amendments gave full commutation authority to the governor....

In an emailed statement, the governor’s office said the decision was the ruling of “one judge,” and said Little had followed the constitution and state law as written. “Governor Little will challenge this ruling because the state must have the ability to carry out the death penalty as ordered by the court in this case,” the office said. “Pizzuto was convicted of rape, robbery and four brutally gruesome murders. This matter is now left for a higher court to ultimately decide.”

Notably, as detailed at this DPIC page, Idaho has only carried out only three executions over the last 50 years and none in nearly a decade. But, in the modern US experience with capital punishment, there always seems to be a whole lot of litigation even if when there are not that many executions.

February 6, 2022 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 31, 2021

Colorado Gov Polis demonstrates, with high-profile commutation and mass pardons, the many powers of clemency

This press release from yesterday, headlined "Governor Polis Grants Clemency, Including Marijuana Pardons," documents that it is never too late in the year for an executive leader to lead with the clemency pen.  Here are a few highlights from the release:

Governor Jared Polis announced that he has granted three commutations, fifteen individual pardons, and signed an Executive Order granting 1,351 pardons for convictions of possession of two ounces or less of marijuana.... 

The marijuana pardon applies to state-level convictions of possession for two ounces or less of marijuana, as identified by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The individuals who have these convictions did not need to apply for pardons, and the Governor’s Office has not conducted individual assessments of the people who have been pardoned through this process.  Individuals convicted of municipal marijuana crimes, or individuals arrested or issued a summons without a conviction, are not included in the pardon.... 

“Adults can legally possess marijuana in Colorado, just as they can beer or wine. It’s unfair that 1,351 additional Coloradans had permanent blemishes on their record that interfered with employment, credit, and gun ownership, but today we have fixed that by pardoning their possession of small amounts of marijuana that occurred during the failed prohibition era,” said Governor Polis.

The Governor also granted commutations to Ronald Johnson, Nicholas Wells, and Rogel Aguilera-Mederos. Mr. Johnson is granted parole effective January 15, 2022, with terms and conditions of parole to be set by the Parole Board. Mr. Wells is parole eligible on January 15, 2022. Mr. Aguilera-Mederos’ sentence is reduced to 10 years. 

The Governor granted pardons to Travis Cleveland, Anthony Formby, Rudolph Garcia, Stephanie Gssime, Michael Jordan, Timothy Lewis, Reginald McGriff, Henry Moreno, Joseph Murillo, Michael Navarro, Ryan Nguyen, Shawn Phillips, Armando Solano, Mohammed Suleiman, and Theresa Yoder.

The name Rogel Aguilera-Mederos, who had his sentence reduced to 10 years, may sound familiar. He is the trucker whose case was discussed in this post a few week ago originally sentenced to 110 years for a deadly crash due to mandatory minimum sentencing statutes.

Here is some press coverage of Gov Polis' clemency work:

December 31, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

With new OLC memo allowing home confinement cohort to stay home, what now of Prez Biden's nascent clemency efforts?

As noted in this post yesterday, some federal prisoners released due to COVID to serve their sentences on home confinement pursuant to the CARES Act received a holiday present in the form of a new opinion from the Justice Department concluding the Bureau of Prisons has "discretion to permit prisoners in extended home confinement to remain there" even after the pandemic ends.  Prior to this new opinion, there was serious concern that thousands of federal prisons might have to be sent back to prison en masse when the pandemic was declared over. 

Indeed, the concerns about having to send thousands of low-risk and well-behaving folks back to federal prison was so strong that it prompted, as detailed in prior post here and here, the Biden Administration reportedly started to gear up a screened program for (mass?) clemency program focused on nonviolent drug offenders on home confinement with less than four years remaining in their sentences.  And now I am wondering what will come of those (still nascent) clemency plans.

In this ACLU press release, ACLU Justice Division Director Udi Ofer explains why clemency is still a concern for the home confinement cohort: 

“We also recognize that the threat of eventual return to prison is still present, so we ask President Biden to use his clemency powers to provide permanent relief to families.  A future administration can still force people back to prison, and families will not have permanent closure until their cases are fully resolved.  So while we celebrate today, we also commit to continuing to advocate for President Biden to use his power of clemency to commute these sentences.”

For all sorts of reasons, a commutation of sentence to time served would surely be preferred by nonviolent drug offenders on home confinement with less than four years left on their sentences as well as by all other persons in the home confinement cohort.  Will the clemency process keep churning in DOJ and the White House for this group now?  Will advocates keep pushing clemency for this group or now turn its attention to those still stuck in federal prison during the on-going pandemic?  And will Prez Biden actually use his clemency power for anyone anytime soon?

December 22, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 20, 2021

ACLU releases new poll showing broad support for clemency for home confinement cohort

This new press release reports that "the American Civil Liberties Union released a poll today showing broad bipartisan support for President Joe Biden to issue clemency to those who were selected to be transferred home under the CARES Act."  Here are more details from the press release:

During the pandemic, thousands of people have been released from prison to finish their sentences on home confinement, many of whom are elderly or especially vulnerable to COVID-19.  Now, thousands are at risk of being sent back to prison when the pandemic recedes if President Biden does not take action.  Sending all of these people back to federal prison would be the single largest act of incarceration in U.S. history....

Among the poll’s findings:

  • 63 percent of voters nationally support clemency for those who are serving their sentences at home due to COVID-19;
  • Among voters in swing House districts, 70 percent of voters support allowing those who were transferred home to serve the reminder of their sentences at home to help prevent the spread of COVID-19;
  • 68 percent of voters nationwide and 58 percent of voters in swing House districts agree that it’s not fair to return people to prison after they have been successfully released to their families and communities and re-entered society;
  • 53 percent of Republican voters agree that it’s unfair to release people back to their families and communities and then return them to prison;
  • 64 percent of voters nationwide — including 84 percent of Democrats — support using the president’s power of clemency to end or shorten prison sentences of people deemed safe for release; and
  • While only 38 percent of independents approve of Biden’s job as president, a majority of them (57 percent) say they would support the president using clemency.

I am a bit surprised that these numbers are not stronger, though it is unclear from the ACLU "fact sheet" just how the poll questions were presented and how much the average poll participant fully knows or understands about all those in the "CARES home confinement cohort."   In fact, I still have not seen a lot of detailed data on just how many persons are still serving time on home confinement whose sentences goes beyond 2022 and would be at risk of a return to prison if the pandemic (miraculously) ends in the next few months.  I have also not seen much information about the sentences still to serve, the offenses of conviction and other details regarding exactly who would benefit from mass clemency om behalf of the home confinement cohort.  Though these details likely would not undermine my general support for bringing relief to this low-risk group, they might shape my view of whether everyone ought to have their sentences commuted to time served or if some perhaps ought to be receive some other form of relief in some cases.

Given that we are now into the final holiday weeks of the year, I am now getting close to giving up any hope that  that Prez Biden will grant even a single clemency in 2021.  (Of course, holiday season clemencies late into December are not uncommon.  Four years ago today, for example, Prez Trump granted a commutation to Sholom Rubashkin.)  And, of course, the omicron surge of the COVID pandemic now suggests that we are clearly many months away, and perhaps even years away, from a return to normal BOP operations when the CARES home confinement cohort would be at risk of a return to prison.  All these realities lead me to think we will be discussing these issues (and doing more polling?) well into 2022.

Some of many prior related posts:

December 20, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

"Would an independent commission solve the clemency backlog?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of the this notable new commentary in the Chicago Sun-Times authored by Jacob Sullum.  Here are excerpts:

When Jimmy Carter became president in 1977, fewer than 500 clemency petitions were pending at the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney.  When Joe Biden became president in January, he faced more than 15,000 petitions, a number that had risen to more than 18,000 as of Dec. 14.

A bill that Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Massachusetts) unveiled last Friday seeks to address this alarming backlog, which includes many people serving unconscionably long sentences for non-violent crimes, by eliminating the Office of the Pardon Attorney and assigning its functions to an independent, nine-member U.S. Clemency Board appointed by the president.

While Pressley is rightly concerned that meritorious cases are languishing at the Justice Department, it’s not clear that her FIX Clemency Act would work as advertised....

The surge in commutation petitions followed an explosion in the federal prison population, which rose ninefold between 1980 and 2013, from fewer than 25,000 to more than 219,000. Since then, the total has fallen by 29%, but it is still more than six times the number in 1980.

Sentences also have increased dramatically. Current federal prisoners, 46% of whom are serving time for drug offenses, received an average sentence of 147 months, nearly three times the average sentence imposed in 1986.... 

So far, Biden has not granted any pardons or commutations.  But when he gets around to it, recent history suggests the Office of the Pardon Attorney will be ill-equipped to help him....

Pressley and her allies argue that the current system entails an unavoidable conflict of interest, since it charges the same department that sends people to federal prison with deciding whether to recommend that the president shorten their sentences.  Former prisoners such as Danielle Metz and Alice Marie Johnson, who were serving life sentences for non-violent cocaine offenses before they were freed by Obama and former President Donald Trump, respectively, agree with this critique and support Pressley’s bill....

One way or the other, the buck stops with the president, who has plenary power to grant clemency.  If Biden is serious about trying to make up for his past as a lock-’em-up legislator, he should get started.

Prior recent related post:

December 15, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 10, 2021

FIX Clemency Act introduced in US House seeking to fix broken federal clemency process

As reported in this new Insider article, headlined "Congressional progressives back new bill to radically change the 'broken' clemency system," today a notable new federal bill was introduced seeking to fix the federal sentencing process.  Here are the basics:

The "FIX Clemency Act," introduced Friday by Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a Democrat from Massachusetts, calls for a nine-person board that would be responsible for reviewing petitions for clemency and issuing recommendations directly to the president. The recommendations would also be made public in an annual report to Congress. At least one member of the panel would be someone who was previously incarcerated.

"Clemency works, but the current system is broken and denies thousands of people the chance of redemption and justice," Pressley told Insider. "It is long overdue that the president uses his clemency authority to address the generations of systemic injustices that have created the mass incarceration crisis," she said, arguing that her bill was a "critical" part of that effort.

The proposal, endorsed by the ACLU and the NAACP, comes as advocates of clemency reform are increasingly frustrated with the administration. Since taking office, President Joe Biden has not used his clemency power — a fact that is not unusual at this point in a new presidency, but a disappointment to those who see it as an area where the White House can immediately and unilaterally reform the criminal justice system....

The bill introduced Friday would eliminate the Office of the Pardon Attorney, transferring its functions to the new board, and guarantee that all requests for pardon or commutation be reviewed within 18 months. Members of the new panel would include a representative from the Department of Justice, but also someone who has worked for a federal public defenders office.

During the 2020 campaign, a "unity" task force composed of Biden supporters and backers of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders recommended the creation of an independent clemency review board. The proposal is also in the Democratic Party's platform.

So far, however, the administration has given no indication that it endorses the reform. And its liberal critics say the federal criminal justice system is headed in the wrong direction. "2021 marks the first increase in 8 years of our federal prison population — that's nearly a decade of progress that has been wiped out," Rep. Cori Bush, a Democrat from Missouri and cosponsor of the new legislation, said in a statement....

"Fueled by the failed war on drugs, the mass incarceration epidemic that our nation faces has ruined lives, families and communities," Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a New York Democrat who leads the House Democratic Caucus, said in a statement. "Our broken clemency system only deepens this pain, and we must transform it in a just, equitable and transparent manner."

Via Rep. Presssly's official website, here are links for the Bill Text and Bill Summary for this quite interesting and important bill.  This press release from that office, titled "Bill Establishes Independent U.S. Clemency Board to Review Applications, Transmit Recommendations Directly to President," starts this way:

Today, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (MA-07), along with Congresswoman Cori Bush (MO-01), Congressman Hakeem Jeffries (NY-08) and grassroots advocates, unveiled the Fair and Independent Experts in Clemency (FIX Clemency) Act, historic legislation to transform our nation’s broken clemency system and address the growing mass incarceration crisis. 

December 10, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (9)

Thursday, December 09, 2021

Another reminder that Prez Biden has so far decided to forget using his clemency powers

The headline of this new Insider article, "Despite promises, Biden has yet to issue a single pardon, leaving reformers depressed and thousands incarcerated," captures the themes of the full piece effectively.  Regular readers will not find anything too new in this article, but it still serves as a useful review of where federal clemency matters stand as we approach the close of 2021.  I recommend this lengthy piece in full, and here are a few excerpts:

Nkechi Taifa, an attorney, activist, and leader of the progressive Justice Roundtable, ... [had an] early December meeting with Susan Rice, director of the Domestic Policy Council, and staff from the Office of the White House Counsel, [where] she implored the administration to act now [on clemency].

More than 7,700 federal inmates are currently on home confinement, granted release from prison on the grounds that they pose no security threat and are at a heightened risk of suffering severe complications from COVID-19. When the public health emergency is declared over, they could be forced to return. Leading Democrats, including Senate Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, have argued it would be an injustice to send them back, urging the White House to consider granting clemency en masse.

In the meeting, White House staff appeared to agree, Taifa said. That's not the problem. "Their rhetoric says that they understand what we're saying, and that they're working on it," she said. The issue is the conversation is taking place in December. "If it's going to take this long for a first step, how long is it going to take for the rest?"...

"What we've got is this bureaucratic morass," Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor, said in an interview. "There's seven levels of review, one after the other, and the first four levels are all in the Department of Justice, which of course is conflicted because they're the ones who sought the sentence in the first place."

The first step is the Office of the Pardon Attorney, which is currently led, on an acting basis, by Rosalind Sargent-Burns, a career department lawyer former Attorney General William Barr appointed. They then present their recommendations on who should get clemency to the deputy attorney general's office, where another staffer reviews it and passes it on — maybe — to their boss. Then it goes to the staff for the White House counsel, then the actual counsel, then an aide to the president and then, if all goes well, to Biden himself.

The president could, at any time, bypass this process. Trump did when he pardoned Arpaio and his other allies, such as Roger Stone and Steve Bannon. If anything, Osler, now a professor at the University of Saint Thomas, told Insider he thinks Biden is too committed to the way things were. It's one thing to respect the Justice Department's career bureaucracy when it comes to deciding who deserves prosecution but, he said, "it doesn't make sense in terms of clemency."

A White House official told Insider the president is "exploring the use of his clemency power" for non-violent drug offenders who were moved to home confinement at the start of the pandemic, a transfer authorized by the March 2020 CARES Act — specifically, those with fewer than four years left on their sentences (one activist who has engaged the White House expects those with less than two years remaining will also be excluded).  "At the same time," the official said, Biden "continues to consider requests for pardon and commutation that are submitted in the ordinary course."...

The Department of Justice declined to comment on how many petitions for clemency have received favorable recommendations within the department or have been referred to the White House. It is impossible to say for sure, then, how much the delay in granting pardons is due to bureaucracy or stalling by political actors.

But sticking with the opaque status quo is itself a political decision — the president could unilaterally discard it — and it's a disappointment, if not a surprise, to people like Osler. He's not expecting big things.  "I haven't heard anything from the administration that gives me hope," he said.

Some of many prior related posts:

December 9, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (8)

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Clemency criticisms as Prez Biden's record is now turkeys 2, humans 0

More than a decade ago, it took a couple years of Thanksgiving turkey pardon rituals before Prez Obama started receiving considerable grief for only granting clemencies to birds and not humans.  But I suppose we have made some progress in the last decade, as now one can find a few year-one commentaries assailing the Prez Biden's clemency record that is just fit the the farm and not for families:

From Marijuana Moment, "Biden Pardons Turkeys, But White House Has ‘Nothing New’ On Relief For Marijuana Prisoners"

From the New York Post, "Biden laughs off question about clemency for humans before pardoning turkeys"

From the Star Tribune, "When it comes to human pardons, thanks for nothing: President Joe Biden hasn't just not pardoned anyone — he's just letting the requests sit unanswered."

Disappointingly, there is still a lot more discussion of the names and fate of the turkeys who were "pardoned" than of the broken federal clemency process and the thousands of clemency requests so far ignored by the Biden Administration.  Sigh.

November 20, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, November 19, 2021

Can Oklahoma's current governor really preclude all future governors from further clemency grants for Julius Jones?

I just had a chance this morning to look at this actual executive order that Oklahoma Governor J. Kevin Stitt signed to commute the death sentence of Julius Jones to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.  The document is interesting in part because it states that the Pardon and Parole Board's recommendation of a commutation to a "sentence of life with the possibility of parole" was not authorized by the Oklahoma Constitution or Oklahoma law and that the "Oklahoma Constitution and other laws of the State also do not provide the Governor authority to grant any such recommendation."  But speaking of a lack of authorization, I was especially struck by this additional part of the executive order:

The Governor has the power to grant commutations "upon such conditions and with such restrictions and limitations as the Governor may deem proper .... "  I hereby place the following conditions upon this commutation:

Julius Darius Jones shall not be eligible to apply for or be considered for a commutation, pardon, or parole for the remainder of his life.

In addition to laws prohibiting the Pardon and Parole Board from recommending and the Governor from granting to Julius Jones life with parole, now or in the future, the Pardon and Parole Board's Rules prevent Jones from re-applying for commutation.  Title 515, Chapter 15, Subchapter 15 of the Oklahoma Administrative Code states, "After receiving a favorable commutation of a sentence from the Governor, an Inmate is ineligible to apply for an additional commutation on the same sentence."

Though I strongly dislike and disfavor any policy of ever precluding a person from ever re-applying for clemency, I suppose I can see some viable legal basis for state laws or rules to preclude repeated clemency applications.  But, critically, this order seems to be trying to preclude all future Oklahoma executive officials from being able to even "consider" Jones "for a commutation, pardon, or parole for the remainder of his life."  And at the start of this order, Gov Stitt states his condition even more broadly: "I ... hereby commute the death sentence of Julius Darius Jones to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, on the conditions that he shall never again be eligible to apply for, be considered for, or receive any additional commutation, pardon, or parole."  (Emphasis added.)

Jones is likely to live in prison for many decades, and further evidence of his innocence or other changed circumstances in the years ahead might want some future governor to consider and possibly grant some other form of clemency.  I do not think there is any legal basis for a current governor to tie the hands of all future governors in the way, but I suspect Jones and his allies will be disinclined to worry or litigate about this future issue while still celebrating his removal from Oklahoma's death row.

A few prior related posts:

November 19, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Oklahoma Gov commutes death sentence of Julius Jones, who claims innocence, to life without the possibility of parole

A high-profile Oklahoma capital case involving claims of innocence took a notable turn just hours before a scheduled execution, as reported in this local press piece:

Julius Jones was scheduled to be executed at 4 p.m. Thursday at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, however, announced at noon Thursday he has commuted Jones' sentence to life without the possibility of parole.

Jones, now 41, has been on death row for more than half of his life for the murder of Paul Howell. Jones has maintained his innocence, saying he was not responsible for the fatal shooting in Edmond in 1999. Jones' family insists he was at home.

The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted 3-1 on Nov. 1 to recommend Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt grant clemency to Jones and reduce his sentence to life in prison with the possibility of parole....

Amanda Bass, the attorney for Julius Jones released the following statement after Gov. Kevin Stitt commuted Jones' sentence to life without the possibility of parole: "Governor Stitt took an important step today towards restoring public faith in the criminal justice system by ensuring that Oklahoma does not execute an innocent man. While we had hoped the Governor would adopt the Board's recommendation in full by commuting Julius's sentence to life with the possibility of parole in light of the overwhelming evidence of Julius's innocence, we are grateful that the Governor has prevented an irreparable mistake."...

“The governor just announced he’s going to grant clemency,” Tiffany Crutcher announced to the crowd outside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. The crowd erupted in shouts of joy. Supporters broke into tears, including Paige Patton who began to praise, “Thank you, Lord.”

The celebration lessened as Crutcher announced that the Governor's decision was to commute Jones' sentence to life without parole. The fight to prove Jones' innocence is not over, and his supporters will not stop, she said. “Julius will get to see sunlight,” Crutcher said. “Julius will not be underground, he will get to hug his family.”

A few prior related posts:

November 18, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Lamenting "Biden's do-nothing approach to clemency" as we approach holiday season

Rachel Barkow and Mark Osler have this new Hill commentary, headlined "Biden can't let Trump's DOJ legacy stifle reform," that focuses on Prez Biden's current disappointing clemency record.  I recommend the full piece, and here is a snippet:

We are almost 10 months into his administration, and all signals point to Biden giving the department free rein to set criminal justice policies that should rest with him instead.

It is no small wonder that this approach has so far resulted in the first increase in the federal prison population in years. The DOJ is poorly situated to take the lead on whether to support legislation to reform sentencing and federal charges because its prosecutors inevitably want laws that make their jobs easier — even when the public interest and Biden’s commitment to reform criminal justice points in a different direction.  Nothing Trump did challenges the urgent need to take DOJ out of its lead policymaking role on criminal law reform — in fact, criminal law reform in the form of the First Step Act was one of his very few bipartisan accomplishments and was accomplished without the imprimatur of the DOJ.

And then there is Biden’s do-nothing approach to clemency, which he seems to have delegated entirely to the DOJ.  Biden inherited 14,000 pending clemency cases when he took office, and there was widespread agreement among those who studied the issue that the solution to the logjam requires moving clemency out of DOJ.  Most of the Democratic candidates for president endorsed this change because the DOJ had proven itself incapable of handling clemency impartially and efficiently for decades.  That backlog is now 17,844.

So why doesn’t Biden take clemency away from DOJ and create the kind of advisory commission that President Ford used to aid him in processing a similar backlog of petitions from people with convictions for draft evasion during the Vietnam War?  The only apparent answer is that Biden does not want to look like he is interfering with DOJ.  But clemency should never have been in DOJ in the first place. It is there by historical accident — no state gives clemency decision-making power to the same prosecutors who bring cases in the first place because of the obvious conflict of interest problem it poses.

Prior recent related post:

November 18, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Some clemency news and notes as we enter the holiday season

Regularly readers know that I view, and advocate for, the exercise of clemency to be a regular part of the work of chief executives, and that I consider regular use of the clemency power to be all that more important in our modern era of mass incarceration and mass punishment and massive collateral consequences.  But, since it seems some chief executives seem to wait until the holiday season to think about clemency work, I will declare that the holiday season has begun. 

Of course, the holiday season often includes my annual complaints about turkey pardons getting more attention than humans with real strong clemency cases.  But, encouragingly, some of past week's news suggests advocates, and even some chief executives, are already getting into the holiday clemency spirit:

From the AP, "North Carolina man wrongfully imprisoned 24 years pardoned"

From Channel3000, "‘A pardon can be a powerful message’: Gov. Evers issues 29 more pardons, bringing total to 307"

From Marijuana Moment, "Senators Urge Biden To Grant Mass Pardon For Thousands Of Marijuana Cases"

From the News Station, "President Clinton’s Pardon Transformed Me Into A Clemency Crusader"

From PIX11, "Advocates want Hochul to use clemency powers for older inmates"

From the Tulsa World, "Five Oklahoma Republican lawmakers urge clemency for Julius Jones"

For anyone intrigued by all this attention to clemency for real people, here are a few obligatory turkey headlines:

From the Alabama News Network, "From Gov. Kay Ivey Pardons Turkeys in Time-Honored Alabama Tradition"

From the Indianapolis Star, "Indiana turkeys will travel to White House for Biden's Thanksgiving presidential pardon"

From People, "Joaquin Phoenix, Billie Eilish Petition Joe Biden to Allow Pardoned Turkey to Live at Sanctuary"

Last but certainly not least, I am pleased to be able to highlight in this context that a terrific pardon project on which I have been working here in Ohio has been officially expanded as of this past week.  This news release from the Governor of Ohio, "Governor DeWine Expands Expedited Pardon Project to Include Law Partners in Cleveland, Dayton, and Cincinnati," starts this way:

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine today announced the expansion of the Ohio Governor’s Expedited Pardon Project, which eliminates administrative hurdles and provides free one-on-one help for qualified citizens seeking legal absolution for past criminal offenses. 

Governor DeWine launched the Ohio Governor's Expedited Pardon Project in 2019 in partnership with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, and the University of Akron School of Law to fast-track the pardon applications of specific candidates who have become law-abiding and contributing members of society.

The expansion of the program enlists new law partners to reach more potential pardon candidates and to help guide candidates through the pardon process. 

A few prior posts about the Ohio "Expedited Pardon Project":

November 13, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, November 02, 2021

Oklahoma board recommends clemency for Julius Jones who claims innocence from death row

This local article reports on a notable development in a high-profile case in Oklahoma involving the next death row inmate scheduled to be executed in the coming weeks. Here are the details:

The Oklahoma State Pardon and Parole Board on Monday recommended clemency for death row inmate Julius Jones.  The board voted 3-1 in favor of granting clemency for Jones, who has been on death row for more than 20 years for the 1999 murder of Edmond businessman Paul Howell.  One board member recused themselves from the vote.

Along with clemency, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board recommended commuting Jones' death sentence to life with the possibility of parole.

"The Pardon and Parole Board has now twice voted in favor of commuting Julius Jones’s death sentence, acknowledging the grievous errors that led to his conviction and death sentence," Jones' lawyer, Amanda Bass, said in a news release.  "We hope that Governor Stitt will exercise his authority to accept the Board’s recommendation and ensure that Oklahoma does not execute an innocent man."

"My son Julius has been on death row for over twenty years for a murder he did not commit, and every day of that has been a waking nightmare for my family," Jones' mother, Madeline Davis-Jones, said in a news release....

Gov. Kevin Stitt will now decide Jones' fate.  He has not said how he plans to decide in the case, only saying that he wouldn't decide until after the clemency hearing.  His office released the following statement to KOCO 5: "Governor Stitt is aware of the Pardon and Parole Board’s vote today. Our office will not offer further comment until the governor has made a final decision."

Jones spoke during Monday's clemency hearing, giving his account of the night Howell was killed, the days after and his trial.

The recommendation comes more than a month after the same Pardon and Parole Board recommended that Jones' sentence be commuted, which set up Monday's clemency hearing. It also came less than a week after Oklahoma resumed executions for the first time since 2015.  The state put John Grant to death last week.  Although a decision on Jones' fate is up in the air, his execution is scheduled for Nov. 18.

Jones has gained a lot of support over the past few years, especially from several high-profile celebrities, including Kim Kardashian and Baker Mayfield.  Howell's family said before the clemency hearing that they hoped the Pardon and Parole Board would vote based on facts instead of Hollywood fiction.  His daughter spoke with KOCO 5 in October, saying a lot of misinformation had spread about Jones and the case.

November 2, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, October 28, 2021

"Limiting the Pardon Power"

The title of this post is the title of this new article authored by Albert Alschuler now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Although our government is said to be one of checks and balances, the president’s power “to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States” appears to be unlimited.  In granting this power, the Framers deliberately cast structural safeguards aside.  Nevertheless, the presidency of Donald Trump prompted a search for limits.  This Article examines: (1) whether a president may pardon crimes that have not yet happened (or announce his intention to do so); (2) whether he may pardon himself; (3) whether he may use pardons to obstruct justice or commit other crimes; (4) whether criminal statutes should be construed not to apply to the president when they arguably limit the pardon power; (5) whether the Take Care Clause limits the pardon power; (6) whether pardons can deprive victims of due process; (7) whether pardons ever violate the separation of powers by limiting the authority of courts; (8) whether the exception to the pardon power for impeachment cases does more than prevent the president from blocking the impeachment of federal officeholders; (9) whether pardons must specifically identify the crimes pardoned; and (10) whether pardons are invalid when issued as the result of fraud, bribery, or other unlawful conduct.  Applying common-law principles that have limited the pardon power from the start, the Article explains why the pardons President Trump granted Roger Stone and Paul Manafort are invalid and why the Justice Department could seek a declaratory judgment saying so.

October 28, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, October 22, 2021

Oregon Gov uses clemency power to give certain juve offenders opportunity for parole after non-retroactive statutory reform

As reported in this HuffPost piece, "Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) commuted the sentences of dozens of people convicted of crimes they committed as kids on Wednesday, potentially reducing their prison time by hundreds of years and marking major progress in a broader reform effort that recognizes people who committed crimes before they were adults have a unique capacity for change." Here is more (with links from the original):

Brown’s clemency order lists more than 70 people who committed crimes before they were 18 years old and are serving sentences of 15 years or more in prison.  They were selected because they were excluded from a 2019 juvenile justice reform bill that dramatically changed the way the state punishes people who commit crimes when they are kids.  Those individuals, many of whom were previously facing life sentences — some without the chance of parole — now have the opportunity to petition the state’s Board of Parole and Post-Prison Supervision for release after 15 years in prison.  Brown instructed the board to consider each individual’s age and immaturity at the time of the crime and whether they have subsequently shown maturity and rehabilitation.
The clemency order excludes individuals who are serving sentences for crimes they later committed as adults and those who have a release date of 2050 or later — although these individuals can still petition the governor for clemency.

The governor’s move comes months after a HuffPost story about Kipland Kinkel, one of Oregon’s most infamous juvenile offenders, and the ways his high-profile case has been used to justify extreme sentencing for other people who committed crimes when they were kids.  In 1998, when Kinkel was 15 years old and experiencing symptoms of a severe undiagnosed mental illness, he killed his mother, his father, two students at his school, and wounded 25 others.  He was sentenced to nearly 112 years in prison without the chance of parole.

With a projected release date of 2110, Kinkel is not part of Brown’s clemency order.  The 2050 cutoff in Brown’s order appears to be designed specifically to exclude him, although it does impact a handful of other people....

Brown’s clemency action is an effort to correct some of the sentencing inequities created by the state legislature with the non-retroactive reform bill....  Juvenile justice reform advocates praised Brown’s decision to give a second chance to people who have grown up and dramatically changed since the time of their crimes....

Brown outlined her clemency plan in a September letter to Oregon’s Department of Corrections in which she requested a list of names of people in its custody for crimes they committed as juveniles who were sentenced before S.B. 1008 went into effect and who met a set of criteria. 

“SB 1008 takes into account the fact that these youth are capable of tremendous transformation,” Brown wrote in the letter, citing the fact that many who commit crimes during their youth complete college degrees and treatment programs while in youth custody before they even age into adult prison. “For these reasons, I have no doubt that the above-referenced list will be comprised of many individuals who have demonstrated exemplary progress and considerable evidence of rehabilitation, and who — unfairly — did not benefit from the effects of SB 1008.”

Brown’s juvenile clemency plan is two-pronged, according to the September letter.  One part involves providing clemency that enables individuals who are serving a sentence of 15 years or more to get a parole board hearing — which she did on Wednesday.  The second part involves reviewing the sentences of people who were under 18 at the time of their crime and who will have served 50% of their sentences by next December.

For the roughly 200 people in that group, the governor’s office “will engage in an individualized review process to determine whether the youth has made exemplary progress and if there is considerable evidence of rehabilitation, as well as taking into account input from the [district attorney] and victims, if any,” Merah wrote in an email. “If the Governor determines that a commutation is warranted, the youth will be granted a conditional release.”  Both parts of Brown’s clemency plan exclude individuals who are currently in prison for a conviction they subsequently committed as adults.

October 22, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Does Prez Trump's statement to clemency advocates to "get this guy home" constitute an enforceable commutation?

The question in the title of this post is the question explored in this recent lengthy Washington Post article discussing a notable new filing by lawyers representing James Rosemond.  The article is headlined "Trump granted hip-hop manager clemency but left him in prison, lawyers claim," and here are excerpts (with links to key filings):

The waning days of Donald Trump’s presidency saw a carnival of celebrities and those with personal connections to him jostling for clemency. Trump obliged many of them, granting pardons to rappers Kodak Black and Lil Wayne and longtime allies Stephen K. Bannon and Roger Stone.

And then there was James Rosemond, known as “Jimmy Henchman,” a once-major player in the hip-hop industry who represented artists such as Salt-N-Pepa, the Game, Akon and Brandy before he was condemned to nine life terms for drug trafficking and murder for hire.

For years, Rosemond’s attorneys and a cadre of celebrity advocates — including retired National Football League great Jim Brown and the actor Michael K. Williams, who died last month — had argued that Rosemond was unjustly convicted, campaigning for President Barack Obama and then Trump to grant him clemency.  Late last year, it appeared to Rosemond’s advocates that they had succeeded. 

On Dec. 18, Trump called Brown and his wife, Monique, according to legal affidavits signed by the Browns. “Let’s get this guy home for Christmas,” Trump told the staff in his office during that call, the Browns said.

By the end of the conversation, the Browns said, they had no doubt that Trump meant he was commuting Rosemond’s sentence. Rosemond’s representatives say that they were told his family should go pick him up the following week and that loved ones traveled to West Virginia to be there when he walked out of prison after a decade inside.  But he never emerged, they say.  The family returned home devastated, and Trump left office two months later.

The Browns’ affidavits are now central to a novel legal argument being advanced by Rosemond’s attorneys that speaks to the mad dash at the end of the Trump administration, when celebrity and influence injected even more uncertainty than usual into the unsettled, high-stakes law of presidential clemency.

In a petition filed Thursday afternoon in federal court in West Virginia, Rosemond’s attorneys claim that Trump’s conversation with Jim and Monique Brown constituted a public communication that he was commuting Rosemond’s sentence, which they said is all that is required to make the decision binding and irreversible.

“Rosemond is serving a sentence that no longer exists,” his attorneys write.  Though the 20-page petition cites obscure examples of informal presidential clemency decrees dating to President Abraham Lincoln’s handling of Civil War deserters, Rosemond’s attorneys acknowledge in the document that “this exact situation is unprecedented — it does not appear to have happened in the history of the United States.”

In a statement to The Washington Post, Rosemond attorney Michael Rayfield said that despite the lack of precedent, “it’s clear to me that Jimmy doesn’t belong in prison for another day.”...

Scholars of presidential clemency interviewed by The Post were split on whether Rosemond’s legal argument has merit.

Mark Osler, a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota who has argued for changes to the presidential clemency process, said that the argument “presents a fascinating question that hasn’t been addressed in modern times.”

“They’ve got a good point, which is that the Constitution does not set out a method to the granting of clemency,” Osler said.  While in other cases, presidents, including Trump, signed pardon warrants, “there’s no statute or constitutional provision that requires that.”

Margaret Love, who served as U.S. pardon attorney from 1990 through 1997, said that the petition, as described to her by a reporter, touches on “really interesting” questions about the legitimacy of a pardon or commutation only uttered by a president.  “I believe there’s no reason in principle that a president should have to write something down,” Love said.

But she said she believed Trump’s language, as she gleaned from the Browns’ affidavits, did not amount to a clear declaration that he was commuting Rosemond’s sentence.  “While the president indicated an intention to do the grant, it does not sound to me like he actually did the grant,” Love said.

October 12, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, October 04, 2021

Pope Francis among those urging Missou Gov to grant clemency to offender scheduled to be executed tomorrow ... UPDATE: Gov denies clemency

As detailed in this new AP article, "Pope Francis has joined the chorus of people calling on Missouri Gov. Mike Parson to grant clemency to a death row inmate who is set to be executed for killing three people during a 1994 convenience store robbery."  Here is more:

In a letter last week, a representative for Pope Francis wrote that the pope “wishes to place before you the simple fact of Mr. Johnson’s humanity and the sacredness of all human life,” referring to Ernest Johnson, who is scheduled to be executed at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the state prison in Bonne Terre, about 50 miles south of St. Louis.

Parson, a Republican, has been considering whether to reduce the 61-year-old Johnson’s sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole.  Johnson’s attorney, Jeremy Weis, said executing him would violate the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits executing intellectually disabled people.  He said multiple IQ tests and other exams have shown that Johnson has the intellectual capacity of a child. He also was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and in 2008, he lost about 20% of his brain tissue to the removal of a benign tumor.

Racial justice activists and two Missouri members of congress — Democratic U.S. Reps. Cori Bush of St. Louis and Emmanuel Cleaver of Kansas City — have also called on Parson to show mercy to Johnson, who is Black.

The Missouri Supreme Court in August refused to halt the execution, and on Friday, it declined to take the case up again. Weis and other attorneys for Johnson on Monday asked the U.S. Supreme Court for a stay of execution.  “This is not a close case — Mr. Johnson is intellectually disabled,” they wrote in their court filing.

Johnson admitted to killing three workers at a Casey’s General Store in Columbia on Feb. 12, 1994 — manager Mary Bratcher, 46, and employees Mabel Scruggs, 57, and Fred Jones, 58.  The victims were shot and attacked with a claw hammer. Bratcher also was stabbed in the hand with a screwdriver....

Johnson was sentenced to death in his first trial and two other times.  The second death sentence, in 2003, came after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that executing the mentally ill was unconstitutionally cruel.  The Missouri Supreme Court tossed that second death sentence and Johnson was sentenced for a third time in 2006.

If the execution takes place as scheduled, it would be the seventh in the U.S. this year but the first not involving either a federal inmate or a prisoner in Texas.  The peak year for modern executions was 1999, when there were 98 across the U.S.  That number had gradually declined and just 17 people were executed last year — 10 involving federal prisoners, three in Texas and one each in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and Missouri, according to a database compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center.

UPDATE: This AP piece reports that the Missouri Gov was unmoved:

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson on Monday declined to grant clemency to death row inmate Ernest Johnson, despite requests for mercy from the pope, two federal lawmakers and thousands of petition signers.

October 4, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, September 27, 2021

"Managing the Pardon Power: Should the Justice Department Remain the Gatekeeper?"

The title of this post is the title of this online panel scheduled for tomorrow and the third and final one in the terrific series of online panels that have been exploring in depth federal clemency powers and practices.  As I detailed in this prior post, this series is jointly organized by the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, the Federal Sentencing Reporter, and the David F. and Constance B. Girard-diCarlo Center for Ethics, Integrity and Compliance at Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. 

A whole lot of folks are doing great work putting this series together, and Margaret Love merits extra praise for her efforts and for helping to assemble writings on these timely topics in Volume 33, Issue 5 of the Federal Sentencing Reporter (which largely provides the foundation for these panels).  Here are more details about this final panel:

Managing the Pardon Power: Should the Justice Department Remain the Gatekeeper?

Tuesday, September 28, 2021 | 12:30 – 2:00 p.m. EDT | Zoom (register here)

This panel rounds out the theme of the series, by considering whether Donald Trump’s departure from past pardoning practices has paved the way for much-needed reforms in the process by which the president gets advice in pardon matters.  Jeffrey Crouch, author of the most comprehensive recent history of the pardon power, will offer an historical perspective on the pardon process, asking whether it has failed in recent years to serve its original purpose of promoting the rule of law and shielding the president from scandal. Rachel Barkow and Paul Larkin have both proposed moving the pardon process out of the Department of Justice to avoid the stranglehold of federal prosecutors, though each has proposed quite different advisory mechanisms with likely differing outcomes: Barkow would create an independent board of officials to receive applications, apply objective standards, and make recommendations to the president, while Larkin believes pardoning is best managed from inside the White House.  Margaret Love, who served as pardon attorney under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, has argued that the process by which the president gets advice in pardon matters should stay in Justice but with significant structural changes.  These proposals are a hopeful sign that the future of the pardon power is brighter than its recent past.

Panelists:

Rachel Barkow, vice dean and Charles Seligson Professor of Law, New York University School of Law
Jeff Crouch, assistant professor of American politics, School of Public Affairs, American University
Paul J. Larkin Jr., Rumpel Senior Legal Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation 
Margaret Love
, executive director, Collateral Consequences Resource Center and former U.S. Pardon Attorney

Moderator:

Douglas Berman, executive director, Drug Enforcement and Policy Center

September 27, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 24, 2021

Law enforcement and prosecutor groups urge Prez Biden to commute sentence of all in home confinement cohort

Via email, I learned this morning about this new letter to Prez Biden from the groups Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration, Fair and Just Prosecution, and Law Enforcement Action Partnership. Here is how it starts:

We write as individuals and on behalf of our respective national organizations — Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, and Fair and Just Prosecution — as it pertains to the approximately 4,000 individuals placed on home confinement pursuant the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (“CARES”) Act, who face the continued threat of reincarceration due to the prior administration’s January 15, 2021, Office of Legal Counsel memo (“OLC memo”).  We are pleased to see reports that your Administration is beginning to consider commutations for individuals who have committed nonviolent drug offenses and have been placed on home confinement pursuant the CARES Act.  Joining members of Congress, justice reform advocates across the political spectrum, and companies that currently employ these individuals, we seek to add our law enforcement perspective and urge you to grant clemency to all individuals placed on home confinement pursuant the CARES Act — regardless of underlying offense or sentence.

Some of many prior related posts:

September 24, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Sending a better clemency message while shooting the messenger

This new New Republic commentary, fully headlined " Biden’s Conservative Vision on Clemency: Thousands of incarcerated people went home early thanks to a Covid relief program. Why would the Biden administration send them back to prison?," continues the annoying tendency of blaming the Biden folks for threatening to send the home confinement cohort back to prison when it is the law passed by Congress (as interpreted by two Justice Departments) that has created the problem.  Here are excerpts (with links from the original):

The Cares Act ... gave the Bureau of Prisons discretion to send certain people home early.  The process involved a rigorous vetting, to ensure that the people chosen were low risk and had served a substantial part of their sentence, and it was effective: Of roughly 4,400 people released under the program, only 190 were sent back for violations, a strikingly low number given how easy it is to break the terms of home confinement. No serious crimes have been reported.

But before Donald Trump left office, administration lawyers determined that once pandemic emergency measures were lifted, Cares Act recipients would have to return to prison.  And Biden’s Office of Legal Counsel declined to reverse the memo.  Still, advocates were hopeful that Joe Biden would issue mass clemency.  So far, that hasn’t happened, leaving Cares Act people anxious about their future and frustrating criminal justice advocates....

Last week, Politico reported that some case workers are being encouraged to have their Cares clients apply to the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney, which sounds promising.  But it also suggests that Biden is wedded to an inefficient process that’s created a backlog of close to 16,000 petitions.... 

It’s not clear whether special considerations will be applied to Cares Act recipients, perhaps allowing them to avoid the long trek through the Justice Department.  In fact, not much is clear at all.  Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said that outside of some leaks to the media, both Cares Act inmates and their advocates are in the dark.  “It’s a crazy lack of transparency,” Ring said.  “Friday afternoon, there’s a phone call to BOP halfway houses saying, this person should fill out a clemency petition in the next couple of days.  Who?  Why?  What [are] the criteria?”...

Amy Ralston Povah, who runs the CAN-DO Foundation, which helps nonviolent drug offenders, is hopeful but frustrated....  She added that Biden’s vision for who deserves early freedom is exceedingly conservative.  “Nonviolent drug offenders are such a limited category,” Povah said.  “Why are others left out?” 

I share Kevin Ring's concerns about a "crazy lack of transparency," though I want to be hopeful along with Amy Ralston Povah about where this is headed.  But I am frustrated because so many seem content to assail the Biden Administration about a problem that is clearly of Congress's making.  As I explained in this post some months ago, titled "Why aren't there much stronger calls for CONGRESS to fix post-pandemic home confinement problems?",  though Prez Biden could (and I think should) use his clemency authority to extended home confinement for those at risk of being sent back to federal prison post-pandemic, Congress is the body that created the CARES Act home confinement authority, and Congress can and should amend the CARES Act to do extend that authority though a few words in an express statutory provision.  Put simply, this matter is a statutory problem that calls for a statutory fix, and blaming Prez Biden for not fully fixing this problem strike me as shooting the messenger. 

I get especially frustrated by this discourse when it is members of Congress who are the ones urging Prez Biden to fix the statutory problem created by Congress.  As explained in this Hill piece, late last week a new letter from more than two dozen House Democrats called on "President Biden to commute the sentences of thousands who were placed on home confinement."  Frustrations aside, I do like that this new letter has legislators asking Prez Biden to improve the existing and badly broken clemency infrastructure.  Here is a key paragraph from the letter:

In addition to the 4,000 people who have been released to home confinement, there are another 15,752 people who, in the midst of this infectious and deadly pandemic, have pending clemency petitions with no real insight on the best way forward for their case.   Thousands with pending clemency petitions have been waiting for a response for years as their cases have languished during previous administrations, including most recently the Trump administration.  While the Trump administration made an effort through home confinement to reduce the number of people inside of BOP facilities, thousands more have been ignored.  The dismissal of their petitions serves only to demonstrate just how ambiguous and broken our clemency system has become.  We, therefore, implore you to establish an advisory board — independent of the Department of Justice — to streamline and modernize the decades-old clemency process, and provide expeditious review of the thousands of cases awaiting answers to their clemency petitions.  This advisory board must address the racially disproportionate impacts of our criminal-legal system.  There is no reason to wait.

Even though I am never keen to see folks shooting the messenger, I am always pleased to see a better clemency message being delivered in the process.  If the push for clemency for the home confinement cohort ends up helping to get our clemency process improved, all the frustrations may almost be worthwhile.

Some of many prior related posts:

UPDATE: The PBS Newshour had this recent segment on these matters under the headline "Inmates released to home confinement during pandemic fear ‘devastating’ reincarceration."

September 21, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

New letter with prominent signers urges Prez Biden to pardon all non-violent marijuana offenders

As reported in this press release, "150+ artists, athletes, producers, lawmakers, law enforcement officials, academics, business leaders, policy experts, reform advocates, and other professionals, signed a letter to U.S. President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. requesting a full, complete, and unconditional pardon to all persons subject to federal criminal or civil enforcement on the basis of a nonviolent marijuana offense."  (Disclosure: I am a signer of this letter.)  The full letter is available at this link, more about the effort is available here as well as from the press release:

The letter, which was spearheaded by the advocacy group The Weldon Project, includes signatures from celebrities such as Drake, Killer Mike, Deion SandersAl Harrington and Kevin Garnett.  Kazan will also participate in a live-streamed event today airing on Vimeo and moderated by Politico reporter Mona Zhang,  at 11:00 a.m. PT to discuss the letter and reinforce the case to provide clemency to all federal nonviolent marijuana offenders.

"The harms of incarceration are obvious, but the pains of federal marijuana convictions transcend prison walls, making it more difficult for someone to get a job, access affordable housing, and receive an education.  A conviction can forever limit an individual's constitutional rights and can put the American dream further out of reach for an entire family. Enough is enough.  No one should be locked up in federal prison for marijuana.  No one should continue to bear the scarlet letter of a federal conviction for marijuana offenses," the letter says, noting that three-quarters of the states have now abandoned the federal government's blanket criminal ban in favor of safe, regulated legal access to marijuana for adults and/or those with qualifying medical conditions.

The request to U.S. President Biden comes at a time when an overwhelming 68% of U.S. adults support the federal legalization of cannabis, and 1 in 3 Americans live in states where cannabis is legal for adults to use.  Thousands of individuals are currently incarcerated in the United States for nonviolent cannabis-related crimes, while countless others have had their rights and livelihoods stripped away because of prior arrests and sentences....

The letter to President Biden points out that a full pardon of federal marijuana offenders is consistent with the Constitution and past practices of presidents from both political parties.  "In 1974, President Ford established a program of conditional clemency for Selective Service Act violators.  In 1977, President Carter issued a categorical pardon to all Selective Service Act violators, closing the book on a costly and painful war.  President Biden has the power to do the same for the federal war on marijuana.  Through his act of constitutional grace, a general clemency will send a clear and powerful message that our country is truly taking a new course on criminal justice policy and practice."  In December of 2020, Angelos was fully pardoned by President Trump.

The stories of those who would be helped by a pardon are compelling: Drake, Meek Mill, Lil Baby, Killer Mike, and dozens of other hip-hop artists, for example, signed on in support of their friend and fellow rapper Ralo, who is facing 8 years for a nonviolent cannabis offense. "I appreciate my friends and peers in the hip-hop community, especially Drake, supporting my clemency because it's just not right that corporations are allowed to violate federal law and become millionaires while people like myself go to prison for years," Ralo said. "This is hypocrisy. I hope that Joe Biden honors his campaign promise and grants us clemency without delay, so I can return to my family and community."

September 14, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Last call for "Donald Trump’s Theatre of Pardoning: What Did We Learn?"

Today is the day for this online panel, the first in a terrific series of online panels exploring in depth federal clemency powers.  As explained in this prior post, this series is jointly organized by the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, the Federal Sentencing Reporter, and the David F. and Constance B. Girard-diCarlo Center for Ethics, Integrity and Compliance at Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. 

A whole lot of folks are doing great work putting this series together, and Margaret Love merits extra praise for her efforts and for helping to assemble writings on these timely topics in Volume 33, Issue 5 of the Federal Sentencing Reporter (which largely provides the foundation for these panels).  Here are more details about today's first panel:

Donald Trump’s Theatre of Pardoning: What Did We Learn?

Tuesday, September 14, 2021 | 12:30 – 2:00 p.m. EDT | Zoom  (Register here)

This panel will examine the unusual nature of President Donald Trump’s pardoning, looking at the grants themselves and the process that produced them.  Professors Bernadette Meyler and Frank Bowman, both scholars of the pardon power, will look to history for anything comparable to Trump’s use of the pardon power, and comment on its implications for the role that pardon has historically played in the U.S. justice system.  Amy Povah will share her experiences as someone who was personally involved in recommending cases to the White House at the end of the Trump Administration.  Kenneth Vogel will share his experiences as a journalist covering Trump’s pardons for the New York Times.  This panel will set the stage for the two subsequent panels about the future of presidential pardoning, by asking basic questions about the role of a regular pardon process and the result of it having been sidelined by Trump.  It will also consider whether Trump’s pardons were an aberration or the predictable result of trends in pardoning over the past thirty years.

Panelists:

Frank Bowman, Floyd R. Gibson Missouri Endowed Professor of Law, University of Missouri School of Law
Bernadette Meyler, Carl and Sheila Spaeth Professor of Law, Stanford Law School
Amy Povah, founder, CAN-DO Justice through Clemency
Kenneth VogelNew York Times

Moderator:

Margaret Love, executive director, Collateral Consequences Resource Center and former U.S. Pardon Attorney

September 14, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, September 13, 2021

Action beginning on Biden clemency plan for some drug offenders in CARES home confinement cohort

As discussed in this post from late last month, there has been talk that Prez Biden might use his clemency powers to help ensure that some member of the CARES home confinement cohort does not have to return to prison after the pandemic.  This new Politico piece, headlined "Biden starts clemency process for inmates released due to Covid conditions," reports on new action on this front:

The Biden administration has begun asking former inmates confined at home because of the pandemic to formally submit commutation applications, criminal justice reform advocates and one inmate herself tell POLITICO.

Those who have been asked for the applications fall into a specific category: drug offenders released to home under the pandemic relief bill known as the CARES Act with four years or less on their sentences.  Neither the White House nor the Department of Justice clarified how many individuals have been asked for commutation applications or whether it would be expanding the universe of those it reached out to beyond that subset.  But it did confirm that the president was beginning to take action.

“The Biden-Harris Administration is working hard every single day to reform our justice system in order to strengthen families, boost our economy, and give Americans a chance at a better future," said White House spokesperson Andrew Bates. "As part of this, President Biden is deeply committed to reducing incarceration and helping people successfully reenter society.  As he has said, too many Americans are incarcerated -- and too many of those incarcerated are Black and Brown. That is why the President is exploring the use of his clemency power for individuals on CARES Act home confinement. The Administration will start the clemency process with a review of non-violent drug offenders on CARES Act home confinement with four years or less to serve.”

The requests from the administration are a concrete sign that the president is planning to use his clemency powers to solve what was shaping up to be one of the thornier criminal justice matters on his desk. The New York Times previously reported that such requests for applications would be coming....

“While we are excited to hear the Biden administration is actively seeking clemency petitions for non violent drug offenders, we pray he will not carve up CARES Act recipients into small subsets,” said Amy Povah, a former prisoner who has become a well known clemency advocate.  “No other president in history has been handed a 'dream come true' opportunity to easily identify a large group of individuals who have already been vetted and successfully integrated into society, many of whom are now gainfully employed, found housing, and are healing the family unit that was injured due to tough-on-crime sentencing policies that previous administrations have acknowledged are horribly unjust.”

Rachel Hanson, 37, was one of those paroled inmates who was at risk of being sent back to her federal facility.  She was 8.5 years into a 151 month sentence for charges of possession with intent to distribute an unspecified amount of cocaine.  She had been released from prison in August of 2021 under the CARES Act but kept in home confinement wearing an ankle monitor.  She was contacted by her case manager on Friday, who told her that her name was submitted by the Department of Justice for expedited clemency and that she needed to fill out her clemency packet right away.

She described the events of the past few days as a blur. “I was so surprised,” she said. “I didn’t expect it.  You hear about clemency. You know it happens to people but you don’t always see.” Hanson has three children, one of whom is a senior in high school. She has a job interview lined up for Tuesday for a production coordinator post at a welding factory.  She has to rush to get her clemency packet completed first....

Udi Ofer, the ACLU’s deputy national political director, said that while he was heartened that the administration was now acting, he faulted the administration for acting in a less than transparent way with advocates and advocacy groups in the criminal justice space.  He said he was troubled by the possibility that it was cleaving off CARES Act recipients into those deserving commutation and those who didn’t.  He noted that the Bureau of Prisons, in originally releasing inmates under the CARES Act, had already made a determination between those who posed a threat of violence and those who didn’t.  “On the other hand, through the anecdotal information we’re seeing, we are worried that the White House is viewing this issue too narrowly and unnecessarily restricting the category of people being asked to apply for clemency,” said Ofer.

Some advocates for clemency and other forms of sentence reduction also expressed concern that the Biden administration’s move essentially put it in the position of working from a list developed by the Bureau of Prisons during the Trump administration, in a process critics said lacked clear guidelines and transparency.  “It’s not clear how the Bureau of Prisons chose people for this home confinement program, which raises the question of whether it’s fair to give a special benefit to these folks not available to those who have filed clemency petitions sometimes years ago and have been patiently waiting,” said Margaret Love, who served as Justice Department pardon attorney under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

I am very pleased to hear of some tangible developments on this long-simmering front, though I would really now be eager to see some detailed accounting of how many members of the CARES home confinement cohort are drug offenders with four years or less on their sentence.  I am also not going to expect or assume that Prez Biden is going to grant clemency to a notable number of individuals until he actually grants clemency to a notable number of individuals.  And I hope this process might prove transparent along the way (as well as robust and just the start of  overdue clemency efforts).

I am now wondering about the expected specifics of clemency grants by Prez Biden for some members of the CARES home confinement cohort.  Through clemency, Prez Biden could shorten the prison terms of individuals so that they have no more time left to serve in prison or on home confinement.  I am assuming that is the working plan, though I think Prez Biden could also opt to just convert remaining prison terms into time to be served only and entirely on home confinement.  As I have highlighted in prior posts here and here, many member of the CARES home confinement cohort could be bringing sentence reduction motions under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A), and it is interesting to think how pending clemency talk and coming action might impact efforts to secure relief through the courts.

Interesting times.

Some of many prior related posts:

September 13, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Reminders from many Govs to Prez Biden: it is always a good time for good clemency

I noted in this recent post that Prez Biden is now behind Prez Trump's clemency pace as we approach the end of the eighth month of Prez Biden's time in the Oval Office without him having yet used his clemency pen one single time.  As discussed in this post from late last month, there is talk that Prez Biden might use his clemency powers to help ensure that at least some member of the CARES home confinement cohort does not have to return to prison after the pandemic.   With summer now winding down, I thought it might be useful to highlight that at least some state governors understand that any time and every season can be a good time and season for clemency.  So here is a round-up of just some stories and commentaries about state clemency efforts from just this summer: 

From Arkansas: "Governor Asa Hutchinson Announces Intent to Grant Executive Clemency"

From Kansas: "Kelly Commutes 5 Prisoners' Sentences, Pardons 3 Others"

From Missouri: "Governor Parson Grants 12 Pardons, Commutes One Sentence"

From New Mexico: "Pardons for 19 New Mexico criminals, some who were violent"

From Oregon: "Pardons and commutations rising in Oregon"

From Virginia: "Northam was right to grant clemency to the Martinsville Seven. He should extend it to the living, too."

From Washington: "Inslee commutes more convictions to clear backlog left after Washington state’s drug-possession law struck down"

From Wisconsin: "Gov. Evers grants 71 pardons since May"

September 12, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (8)

Thursday, September 02, 2021

Realizing that Prez Biden is now officially behind Prez Trump's clemency pace

Gearing up for this awesome series of panels later this month on "The Future of the President’s Pardon Power: 2021 Clemency Panel Series," and particularly thinking about Prez Trump's record for this first panel on "Donald Trump’s Theatre of Pardoning," it dawned on me that it was around this time in 2017 that Prez Trump issued his very first clemency grant.  Specifically, as noted in this post, on August 25, 2017, President Donald Trump pardoned former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.  

Fast forward four years, and we are now into September of the first year with President Biden in the oval Office and he has not yet used his clemency pen one single time.  Being behind Prez Trump's unimpressive pace is especially troubling given that candidate Joe Biden promised to "broadly use his clemency power for certain non-violent and drug crimes" and there is an on-going pandemic that continues to harmfully impact a (now growing) federal prison population as well as thousands of low-risk offenders released to home confinement facing possible return to prison. 

I have highlighted in a number of prior posts how disappointing the Biden Administration's criminal justice record has been so far.  But his clemency record (or lack thereof) represents the most tangible and worrisome example of this Administration's apparent affinity for the (broken) political and legal status quo on various federal criminal justice matters.

A few of many prior related posts:

September 2, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (7)

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

"Donald Trump’s Theatre of Pardoning: What Did We Learn?"

Clemency-Series_for-web-and-email2The title of this post is the title of this online panel now scheduled for two week from today and the first in a terrific series of online panels that will explore in depth the federal clemency powers.   As I detailed in this prior post, this series is jointly organized by the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, the Federal Sentencing Reporter, and the David F. and Constance B. Girard-diCarlo Center for Ethics, Integrity and Compliance at Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. 

A whole lot of folks are doing great work putting this series together, and Margaret Love merits extra praise for her efforts and for helping to assemble writings on these timely topics in Volume 33, Issue 5 of the Federal Sentencing Reporter (which largely provides the foundation for these panels).  Here are more details about this first panel:

Donald Trump’s Theatre of Pardoning: What Did We Learn?

Tuesday, September 14, 2021 | 12:30 – 2:00 p.m. EDT | Zoom  (Register here)

This panel will examine the unusual nature of President Donald Trump’s pardoning, looking at the grants themselves and the process that produced them.  Professors Bernadette Meyler and Frank Bowman, both scholars of the pardon power, will look to history for anything comparable to Trump’s use of the pardon power, and comment on its implications for the role that pardon has historically played in the U.S. justice system.  Amy Povah will share her experiences as someone who was personally involved in recommending cases to the White House at the end of the Trump Administration.  Kenneth Vogel will share his experiences as a journalist covering Trump’s pardons for the New York Times.  This panel will set the stage for the two subsequent panels about the future of presidential pardoning, by asking basic questions about the role of a regular pardon process and the result of it having been sidelined by Trump.  It will also consider whether Trump’s pardons were an aberration or the predictable result of trends in pardoning over the past thirty years.

Panelists:

Frank Bowman, Floyd R. Gibson Missouri Endowed Professor of Law, University of Missouri School of Law
Bernadette Meyler, Carl and Sheila Spaeth Professor of Law, Stanford Law School
Amy Povah, founder, CAN-DO Justice through Clemency
Kenneth Vogel, New York Times

Moderator:

Margaret Love, executive director, Collateral Consequences Resource Center and former U.S. Pardon Attorney

August 31, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 30, 2021

Prez Biden reportedly considering, for home confinement cohort, clemency only for "nonviolent drug offenders with less than four years" left on sentence

The New York Times has this notable new report, headlined "White House Weighs Clemency to Keep Some Drug Offenders Confined at Home," which suggests a limited subclass of the home confinement cohort may the focal point for clemency efforts by the Biden White House.  Here are the details, many of which are not that new, but all of which are important as efforts move slowly forward to help this cohort:

President Biden is considering using his clemency powers to commute the sentences of certain federal drug offenders released to home confinement during the pandemic rather than forcing them to return to prison after the pandemic emergency ends, according to officials familiar with internal deliberations.

The legal and policy discussions about a mass clemency program are focused on nonviolent drug offenders with less than four years remaining in their sentences, the officials said. The contemplated intervention would not apply to those now in home confinement with longer sentences left, or those who committed other types of crimes.

The notion of clemency for some inmates is just one of several ideas being examined in the executive branch and Congress. Others include a broader use of a law that permits the “compassionate release” of sick or elderly inmates, and Congress enacting a law to allow some inmates to stay in home confinement after the pandemic.

Interviews with officials in both the executive branch and Congress, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive deliberations, suggest there is broad support for letting nonviolent inmates who have obeyed the rules stay at home — reducing incarceration and its cost to taxpayers. But officials in each branch also foresee major challenges and have hoped the other would solve the problem....

Inmate advocates and some Democratic lawmakers have urged the Biden legal team to rescind the Trump-era memo and assert that the bureau can lawfully keep the prisoners in home confinement even after the pandemic ends.

But The New York Times reported last month that the Biden legal team had concluded that the memo’s interpretation of the law was correct, according to officials briefed on the internal deliberations. Officials have subsequently characterized that scrutiny as a preliminary review and said that a more formal one was underway, but suggested that a reversal of the Trump-era legal interpretation continued to be highly unlikely.

Against that backdrop, in a little-noticed comment at a press briefing this month, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, let slip that Mr. Biden was taking a closer look at clemency to help the subgroup who are nonviolent drug offenders....  In interviews, officials have subsequently confirmed that focus.  As a first step, the Justice Department will soon begin requesting clemency petitions for drug offenders who have less than four years left on their sentence, which will then be reviewed by its pardon office, they said.

It is unclear whether the Biden team is leaning toward commuting the sentences of the nonviolent drug offenders to home confinement, reducing the length of their sentences to bring them within the normal window for home confinement or a mix of the two.  The officials said focusing on nonviolent drug offenders, as opposed to other types of criminals, dovetailed with Mr. Biden’s area of comfort on matters of criminal justice reform. In his campaign platform, Mr. Biden had said he pledged to end prison time for drug use alone and instead divert offenders to drug courts and treatment.

Inimai Chettiar, the federal director of the Justice Action Network, called the idea a good start but also questioned the basis for limiting it to some nonviolent drug offenders, saying there was “no scientific evidence” for restricting the help to that category.  She suggested another explanation. “Politically, it’s an easier group to start with,” Ms. Chettiar said.

In addition, officials said, the Justice Department is studying other options that could help keep different groups from being forced back into prison.  Another idea under consideration is to petition the courts to let some individual inmates stay in home confinement under a “compassionate release” law. While the compassionate release law is normally used to permit terminally ill inmates to rejoin their families shortly before dying, the statute includes a broad standard for what a judge could decide warrants a sentence reduction — “extraordinary and compelling reasons” — that is not defined and might be applied to the pandemic-era home confinement population.

Kristie Breshears, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Prisons, said additional options included expanding a pilot program that allows for the early release of older inmates in order to keep some who are over the ago of 60 in home confinement, and placing some inmates in halfway houses for 12 months.

Separately, Senators Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Charles E. Grassley of Iowa — the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee — have also been discussing potential bipartisan legislation that would solve the problem in a simpler way by explicitly authorizing the Justice Department to extend home confinement after the pandemic.

At a hearing in April, Mr. Grassley joined Democrats in voicing support for allowing inmates in home confinement to stay there.  Taylor Foy, a spokesman for Mr. Grassley, said his office had drafted legislation that month that would let “inmates moved to home confinement during the pandemic complete their sentences there rather than returning to prison after the pandemic ends.”

Mr. Durbin had been among those who urged the Biden administration to instead reinterpret existing law as permitting perpetual home confinement for those inmates who were placed there during the emergency period. In a statement, Mr. Durbin embraced the idea of new legislation, but also said he did not think it would be easy — or necessary.  The prospects for legislation in “an evenly divided Senate are uncertain,” he said, reiterating his view that “the Biden administration has ample executive authority to immediately provide the certainty” to the inmates.

I would be eager it see an "all of the above" and more approach move forward in the months ahead. Prez Biden should certainly consider commuting many of the sentences of nonviolent drug offenders on home confinement (and also many others) AND there should be a continued push to seek sentence reductions in the courts for others on home confinement (and also many others) AND BOP should expand its pilot program for releasing older offenders into home confinement AND Senators Grassley and Durbin should keep pushing forward with legislation to expand the authority for placement into home confinement and to prevent those so placed from having to return to prison absent misbehavior.

When campaigning for his current job, Prez Biden promised that he would "take bold action to reduce our prison population."  But the federal prison population has so far grown significantly in the first seven month of the Biden Administration.  Specifically, the federal prison population has grown by over 4000 persons according to BOP numbers, from 151,646 total inmates on Jan 21, 2021 to 155,730 total inmates on Aug 26, 2021.  To date, I cannot really think of any actions (let alone bold ones) that Prez Biden has taken to reduce the federal prison population.  Talk of some clemency action is heartening, but just a start.  And whatever clemency efforts are made, they should extend beyond just a limited group who are already home.

August 30, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 27, 2021

Amazing line-ups for "The Future of the President’s Pardon Power: 2021 Clemency Panel Series"

Clemency-Series_for-web-and-email2

I am so very pleased and proud to be helping to put on a terrific series of online panels to explore in depth the federal clemency powers.  This series is jointly organized by the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, the Federal Sentencing Reporter, and the David F. and Constance B. Girard-diCarlo Center for Ethics, Integrity and Compliance at Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. 

Though a whole lot of folks are doing great work putting this series together, the indefatigable Margaret Love merits extra praise for helping to turn a general idea into this great series.  She also deserves special recognition for her work helping to assemble writings on these timely topics in Volume 33, Issue 5 of the Federal Sentencing Reporter (which largely provides the foundation for these panels.)

The series’ three panels will discuss the use of the pardon power by President Donald Trump and how it may influence pardoning in the future. They will consider whether Trump’s irregular pardoning may have been a blessing in disguise by prompting much-needed reforms in law and in practice.

PANEL 1: Donald Trump’s Theatre of Pardoning: What Did We Learn?

September 14, 2021 | 12:30 – 2:00 p.m. EDT | Zoom

Panelists:

 

PANEL 2: Supplementing the Pardon Power: Second Looks and Second Chances

Tuesday, September 21, 2021 | 12:30 – 2:00 p.m. EDT | Zoom

Panelists:

 

PANEL 3: Managing the Pardon Power: Should the Justice Department Remain the Gatekeeper?

Tuesday, September 28, 2021 | 12:30 – 2:00 p.m. EDT | Zoom

Panelists:

August 27, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

NY Gov Andrew Cuomo leaves office with a (high-profile) clemency whimper

in a detailed report released early last year, the NYU Center for the Administration of Criminal Law documented the decline of clemency in New York state in modern time.  This report, titled "Taking Stock of Clemency in the Empire State: A Century in Review," starts this way:

Clemency in New York has long been declining, while the state’s prison population has grown dramatically.  Between 1914 and 1924, New York averaged roughly 70 commutations per year, equal to the total number granted between 1990 and 2019.  In 1928, Governor Al Smith granted 66 commutations from a total prison population of 7,819.  Had commutations been granted at an equivalent rate in 2019, there would have been approximately 373; in actuality, there were two.

The ugly modern New York clemency numbers were particularly disheartening given that former NY Gov Cuomo started talking big about NY clemency efforts in 2015 and again in 2017 (see prior posts here and here).  But, after talking the talk, former Gov Cuomo thereafter never actually delivered significant results (see prior posts here and here). 

But, as is depressingly common, former Gov Cuomo did deciding to go on a bit of a final (though still modest) clemency spree after announcing his resignation.  This AP piece  detailed that Cuomo granted five pardons and five clemencies last week, and this new local piece details that in his final hours in office, "Gov. Andrew Cuomo commuted the sentences of four individuals, referred one case to the parole board, and fully pardoned one individual."  Given that there are well nearly 40,000 persons in New York prisons (with likely more than 10,000 over 50) and probably more than four million will some sort of state criminal record, a total of 16 clemencies on the way out the door seems more like a whimper than a bang.

That said, the one referral to the parole board will be sure to get attention because it involved a high-profile inmate with a high-profile son and it does not serve as a conclusion of the matter.  This local article, headlined "Cuomo commutes sentence of radical who took part in '81 robbery; David Gilbert, imprisoned for four decades, can take case to parole board," provides the basics:

Just hours before leaving office, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo granted clemency to five men, including the commutation of the 75-years-to-life sentence of David Gilbert, a former member of the radical Weather Underground who in 1981 took part in the robbery of a Brink's armored truck in Rockland County that left two Nyack police officers and a security guard dead.

Steve Zeidman, a CUNY Law School professor who began representing Gilbert in 2019, said Monday evening that his client is one of the oldest and longest-serving among the state's roughly 38,000 inmates.  He said that Gilbert has expressed deep remorse for his role in the crime, and while behind bars has taken part in efforts such as the creation of an AIDS education program that became a statewide model as the epidemic was raging in the 1980s and '90s.

Zeidman, who directs the law school's Criminal Defense Clinic, said that beyond the impact on Gilbert personally, Cuomo's action sends a message to incarcerated people who fear they have no chance for release.  "When a governor issues clemency, it echoes, it reverberates, it spreads hope," he said.  Gilbert's son, Chesa Boudin, was elected district attorney for San Francisco in 2019.  His mother, Kathy Boudin, was also incarcerated for decades for her part in the heist, and received parole in 2003.

 

Gilbert and Kathy Boudin were in a transfer truck waiting for the getaway car carrying the robbers and the $1.6 million they had stolen from the Brink's truck at the Nanuet Mall. Boudin received a sentence of 25 years to life after hiring a lawyer, pleading guilty and accepting a plea deal; Gilbert defended himself and went to trial.

"My father was not present in the courtroom for much of the trial and nobody advocated for him, which is why it is a bad idea to represent yourself," Chesa Boudin told Grondahl. "My mother and father did the exact same thing and had identical culpability in the crime. My mother served 22 years in prison and was paroled 17 years ago, while my father is still in prison. It's an example of criminal justice imbalance."

August 24, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 16, 2021

Might "big change" in New York leadership include a better record on clemency?

I got to thinking today that the coming resignation of Andrew Cuomo will end a particularly disappointing recent chapter in state clemency activity.  Notably, in the wake of Prez Obama;s 2014 Clemency Project, NY Gov Cuomo started talking big about NY clemency efforts in 2015 and again in 2017 (see posts here and here).  But, after talking the talk, Gov Cuomo thereafter never actually delivered significant results.  Here were a few prior posts covering some of Gov Cuomo's pre-COVID failings as of January 2020:

And here are just a few of a number of press pieces from the COVID era highlighting that Gov Cuomo's clemency record did not improve during the pandemic: "While COVID-19 Spreads In NY Prisons, Loved Ones On The Outside Plead With Cuomo For Clemency" and "Prisoners Hoping for Mercy Place Little Faith in Cuomo."  (It is also worth recalling a story detailing that Gov Cuomo was not inspiring as to other prison policies during the pandemic: "Judge says Cuomo's prison COVID-19 vaccine policies were 'arbitrary and capricious'.")

The headline of this recent CBNC piece about the leadership transition in Albany, "Kathy Hochul vows big change from ‘toxic’ Cuomo administration, will fire ‘unethical’ staffers," has me hoping that "big change" in Albany will include a whole new approach to clemency.  After very disappointing work by Gov Cuomo, I hope that a new Gov brings some new hope to clemency advocates in New York.  For a host of reasons, I think it would be unrealistic to expect the incoming Gov to prioritize clemency issues right away, but I also think advocates would be wise to urge her to use her clemency pen as another way to distinguish herself from her predecessor.

August 16, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

"We Know How to Fix the Clemency Process. So Why Don’t We?"

The title of this post is the headline of this new New York Times essay authored by Rachel Barkow and Mark Osler.  As with everything authored by these two professors, this piece should be read in full.  Here are excerpts:

The fundamental problem with having the Justice Department run clemency is that prosecutors aren’t good at it.  Under the department’s regulations, the Office of the Pardon Attorney must give “considerable weight” to the opinions of local prosecutors — the very people who sought the sentence in the first place.

These prosecutors typically don’t keep up with the people they prosecuted to learn what they’ve been doing while incarcerated or what their post-prison re-entry plans look like.  Their data point is the conviction itself, so their analysis of the case is frozen in time. No matter the intent from on high, it is hard to get around this obstacle.

Vice President Harris, a former prosecutor herself, has warned of “inherent conflicts of interest” in the current process. Justice Department lawyers, she argued during her campaign, should not determine whether people convicted by colleagues in the legal system should have their sentences shortened or commuted....

The faulty architecture of clemency has been apparent for decades, with shamefully low grant rates from presidents of both parties.  If the administration put in place a competent advisory board to process petitions instead of relying on the Justice Department’s flawed and biased process, it could address the backlog, just as a board addressed the huge backlog of petitions for clemency from draft evaders in the wake of the Vietnam War.

The board should include experts in rehabilitation, re-entry and prison records, including a person who has been incarcerated.  It would be able to consult with the Justice Department, but the department would no longer be responsible for the decision itself.  This will allow the board to make objective recommendations; then it will be up to the president whether to accept them.

The Biden administration understands the value of expertise and process.  Justice is the last place where an exception should be made.

July 13, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, July 07, 2021

"When Will Joe Biden Start Using His Clemency Powers?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this lengthy New York magazine article by Zak Cheney-Rice.  The obvious answer, of course, is "not soon enough," given that Prez Biden has gone his first six month, amid a global pandemic after campaigning as a reformer, without a single act of clemency.  But the piece strikes a slightly more hopeful tone, and here excerpts: 

According to the New York Times, the Biden administration has signaled, as recently as this summer and in multiple conversations with advocates, that he would use clemency both broadly and soon, with an emphasis on advancing his racial justice agenda.  This is significant ... because over the last several decades, presidents have been using their clemency powers less often, waiting until later in their presidencies to do so, and leaving people in squalid and dangerous conditions for longer periods of time because of it....

In the waning days of Donald Trump’s presidency, his administration issued a memo saying the thousands of people who’d been released from federal prison to home confinement during the “pandemic emergency period” would be locked up again as soon as the order was lifted, if their sentences weren’t up by then.  According to the Times, this is still in effect, and the Biden administration has been weirdly cagey about whether it would reverse Trump’s order and let them stay home.  These 4,000 prisoners are pre-selected and already free, so they’re easy candidates for commutations. The White House reviews the emergency declaration every three months.  None of these reviews has yielded answers so far, and the next one is scheduled for July.

This situation is shaping up to be a test of Biden’s ambitions regarding clemency.  There’s no concrete reason to think the president won’t make good on his promise to use clemency more than has become normal, but that’s mostly because the bar is so low.  Since Richard Nixon was president — a useful marker here, because that’s when the era of mass incarceration started — there’s been a fairly steady downward trend in presidents’ use of this unique power, which is granted to them by the Constitution, and which entails mostly commutations (which partly or completely cut short sentences) and pardons (which essentially wipe out convictions).

Nixon granted clemency to 926 people.  Trump granted it to 237, bookending a period of more than 50 years, starting with Ronald Reagan, that saw the numbers drop below 500 and stay there, with one exception, through the present day.  (With the caveat that this period has seen two one-term presidents, Democrats have usually been more willing to use this power than Republicans, but not by much. )  The one exception was Barack Obama, who granted clemency, mostly in the form of commutations, to 1,927 people, the most since Harry Truman.  As of July 1, 2021, there were still 153,683 federal prisoners.

Biden has hinted that he’ll start sooner rather than later, possibly even before the 2022 midterms, which is a big deal because of the politics surrounding the issue.  The American antipathy toward clemency is one of the main motivators behind the downward trend in pardons and commutations: The appearance of being “soft on crime,” and the possibility that someone you free re-offends in some politically inopportune way, makes it hard for presidents to rationalize pardoning people or commuting sentences with any regularity. To minimize the political fallout, they usually wait until late to start granting the bulk of them.  Oftentimes, like in Trump’s case, most get rushed through during a president’s last days in office.

The effect is that clemency has become really unusual.  And when something is unusual, each decision becomes freighted with dramatic significance and scrutinized to the nth degree.  There have, of course, been good reasons to monitor presidents’ clemency decisions. Trump used it to reward imprisoned cronies and mislead voters.  Bill Clinton famously pardoned the husband of a wealthy Democratic donor.  But the scrutiny is overwhelmingly due to its rarity, not its infrequent abuses.  It’s been fashioned into an almost cosmically precious blessing to those who receive it, rather than a workaday part of a president’s duties.

Plenty of ideas have been floated about how to change this on a systemic level.  Rachel Barkow, a law professor of New York University, has spent years researching and developing ideas for how to make clemency more common, in part by making it less politically perilous and less vulnerable to conflicts of interest.  Both of these goals probably mean removing such decisions from the purview of the Justice Department, where they’re mostly handled today.  Federal prosecutors are responsible for these people being in prison in the first place.  Their decisions — which often determine which petitions get to the president, for example — inevitably run up against the fact that they’re often undermining, and potentially reversing, their own work.

To reduce the political risk, Barkow suggests establishing a clemency board, composed of interests from across the political spectrum, and spanning a wide range of people who work, have worked in, or have been impacted by the criminal legal system, to process requests and seek out candidates.  This would spread out responsibility enough to take the weight off any one person, thereby encouraging more commutations and pardons, especially for someone like Biden, who says he wants to grant them.  (Several states already have boards like this in place. Barkow, citing her research and others’, describes them as a “necessary precondition” where clemency is routine.)

Whatever the route, two things are clear about Biden’s plan so far: he hasn’t done anything yet, despite his signaling, and people close to him have indicated to the Times that he’s “not inclined to circumvent” the Justice Department — meaning he’s probably committed to an approach that preserves conflicts of interest and retains more political calculation than it needs to.  This is bad for normalizing clemency.  The president couldn’t end mass incarceration or even make a major dent in it, even with a more proactive strategy — the federal incarcerated population is too small as a portion of the whole, for one. But he can wield clemency symbolically, telegraphing to federal prosecutors which cases are worth pursuing, for example.  And in more practical terms, he can spare as many people as he can from what is functionally a life of terror, torment, and uncertainty, and can do so now and regularly moving forward to prevent needless suffering.

Jails and prisons are scary and often life-annihilating places, even in non-pandemic times, and there are untold numbers of people who shouldn’t be there.  Immediate fixes, though small, are available.  The longer Biden waits and the rarer presidential clemency stays, the more unusual it will continue to be.

A few prior recent related posts:

July 7, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, July 04, 2021

Reviewing a few Fourth of July postings (while awaiting Prez Biden clemency action to enhance liberty)

Liberty-us-flag-600-dreamstimeI have not always done special posts to celebrate Independence Day over the last 18 years of blogging.  But, looking back at my archives this morning, I realized I have done enough notable July 4 posts to justify a bit of a celebratory review:

From 2005: Celebrating liberty, Blakely-style

From 2008: Celebrating liberty in the country leading the world in incarceration rates

From 2009: What to the American imprisoned is the Fourth of July?

From 2010: Celebrating our declaration of rights to "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness"

From 2017: "Everyone should go to jail, say, once every ten years"

From 2018:  Hey Prez Trump, how about honoring Independence Day by using your clemency power to give some more Americans more liberty?

From 2019: Imagining an Independence Day in which Governors and the President compete to use their clemency powers to enhance liberty and freedom

These last two postings serve as a timely reminder that, so far, Prez Joe Biden is yet to live up to his campaign promise to "broadly use his clemency power" in order "to secure the release of individuals facing unduly long sentences for certain non-violent and drug crimes."  Commuting the sentences of persons serving undue time in federal prison or on home confinement could and would be, of course, one way to enhance liberty on this special day for celebrating freedoms; granting pardons in order to free persons from burdensome collateral consequences could and would also enhance "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" for deserving recipients.

I am quite fearful that Prez Biden is in no rush to use his clemency authority to enhance liberty.  But, as 2021 marches forward, I am likely to keep highlighting the reality that every 20th Century president, except for Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, granted some clemencies during his first year in office.  Of course, the 21st Century record is much uglier, with a lone pardon by Prez Trump in 2017 as the only first-year clemency grant by a president in the current century.  I will keep rooting for Prez Biden to return to the 20th Century norms rather than continue the ugly 21st Century record, but I am not holding my breath. 

July 4, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 02, 2021

New Federal Sentencing Reporter issue considers "After Trump: The Future of the President’s Pardon Power"

M_fsr.2021.33.5.coverIt strikes me as a great bit of great timing, as we head into a weekend celebrating our great nation's declaration of independence from a monarchy, that the new issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter focused on the pardon power in the US Constitution is just now available online.  It is often said that the presidential pardon authority in Article II section 2 of the Constitution is the most "kingly" power given to our chief executive, and former Prez Donald Trump certainly seemed at times to bring a "mad King George" quality to his activities in this arena.  Notably, as explained in the intro to this June 2021 issue of FSR, the editors had some history and some expert help putting together a new issue on this always timely topic:

This Issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter shines a light on the state of clemency today, with an emphasis on the federal system and events of the Trump administration.  This Issue thus continues an FSR tradition of exploring federal clemency practices under each president, starting in 2001 after President Bill Clinton created controversies with final-day pardons.  Over the last twenty years, an array of commentators have analyzed the actions (and inactions) of four presidents, each of whom embraced quite different goals, perspectives, and strategies.  In addition to bringing thoughtful new perspectives to recent events, the articles assembled today by guest editor Margaret Love, the indefatigable advocate, scholar, and former Pardon Attorney, offer a roadmap to, in her words, “restore legitimacy to the pardon power and its usefulness to the presidency.”  The editors of FSR are — once again — deeply grateful for Ms. Love’s efforts and expertise.

Here are the great new original articles in this great new FSR issue:

July 2, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Some clemency news and notes from (only) a few states

If there was lots of clemency action in lots of jurisdictions lots of the time, I might not consider a few grants by a few governors to be especially blogworthy.  But clemency action is still all too rare, so it notable to see clemency stories from a few states in one week:

From Florida, "Florida governor pushes through pardon for COVID-19 rule breakers"

From Kansas, "Kansas governor grants clemency to 8, embracing ‘political risk’ in rare use of power"

From Oregon, "Gov. Kate Brown commutes sentences of 41 inmates who helped battle historic wildfires"

June 27, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Why aren't there much stronger calls for CONGRESS to fix post-pandemic home confinement problems?

In many prior posts (some linked below), I have discussed the Office of Legal Counsel memo released at the end of the Trump Administration which interprets federal law to require that certain persons transferred to home confinement pursuant to the CARES Act be returned to federal prison when the pandemic ends.  I see that there are two more notable new press articles on this topic:

From The Hill, "Biden faces criticism for not extending home confinement for prisoners"

From the Washington Post, "A grandmother didn’t answer her phone during a class. She was sent back to prison."

The somewhat scattered Post article focuses on persons sent from home confinement back into federal prison for minor technical violations while also noting that the Biden Administration could seek to rescind the OLC memo or use clemency powers to keep folks home after the pandemic is deemed over.  The lengthy Hill article is more focused on the political discussion around this issue, but my post title reflects my growing frustration with this discourse.  Here are excerpts:

President Biden is under fire for not announcing an extension of a home confinement program for prisoners that was started during the coronavirus pandemic.  Progressives and criminal justice advocates have pressured the administration for months to rescind a Trump-era policy that kills the program when the pandemic ends.  They are frustrated that Biden's remarks this week didn’t address it....

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), who led a letter of 28 House Democrats in April calling for the policy to be rescinded, “is disappointed he hasn’t officially extended the home confinement program,” a spokesperson said....

The home confinement program during the coronavirus pandemic was launched in response to the CARES Act in March and directed the federal Bureau of Prisons to prioritize home confinement for certain inmates in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus.  Roughly 24,000 inmates since have been sent to home confinement.

In the final days of the Trump administration, the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel issued a memo stating that under federal law, those inmates released under the CARES Act must report back to prison when the coronavirus emergency is over, unless they are nearing the end of their sentence.  Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland could rescind that policy....

Advocates also argue that those inmates transferred to home confinement have been monitored and largely have not violated the conditions of their situation. “If they’re so low risk and they haven’t violated the conditions, it’s hard to imagine any reason why they should be sent back,” said Maria Morris, senior staff attorney at the ACLU National Prison Project, adding that it would be a “ridiculous waste of resources.”

Many of the inmates placed in home confinement are elderly or in a vulnerable situation due to COVID-19, which posed a threat to them if they stayed inside a prison.  [Holly] Harris calls it “bad government” to send those inmates back to prisons. “At this point, the president just needs to grant them clemency and let them move on.  They are out because the Trump Administration felt it was safe enough to let them go home.  What more cover does he need?” she said.

I agree entirely with advocates saying it would be "bad government" and a "ridiculous waste of resources" to send back to prison thousands of vulnerable people who have been successful serving their sentences at home during the pandemic.  But I do not think it entirely right to describe the OLC memo as a "Trump-era policy" that is readily changed by the Biden Administration.  The OLC memo is not really a "policy" document; it is an elaborate interpretation of how the CARES Act alters BOP authority to place and keep persons in home confinement.  Though the OLC statutory interpretation requiring a return of persons to federal prison is debatable, the fact that this interpretation of the CARES Act amounts to bad policy does not itself give the Biden Administration a basis to just ignore statutory law.

Of course, statutory law notwithstanding, Prez Biden could (and I think should) use his clemency authority to extended home confinement for those at risk of being sent back to federal prison post-pandemic.  But if members of Congress are "disappointed" that the home confinement program is not being extended, they should amend the CARES Act to do exactly that with an express statutory provision!  This difficult issue stems from the text of the CARES Act; if the statutory text Congress passed when COVID first hit now is clearly operating to creates wasteful, bad government, Congress can and should fix that statutory text.  Put simply, this matter is a statutory problem that calls for a statutory fix. 

I surmise that advocates (not unreasonably) assume that getting a gridlocked Congress to "fix" this CARES Act home confinement problem through statutory reform is much less likely than achieving some other fix through executive action.  But, as I see it, exclusive focus on executive action to fix what is fundamentally a statutory problem itself contributes to legislative gridlock.  Indeed, I am more inclined to criticize the Biden Administration for not urging Congress to fix this CARES Act problem, especially because the notable success of home confinement policies during the pandemic could and should justify statutory reforms to even more broadly authorize ever greater use of home confinement in "normal" times.

Notably, three sentencing-related bill made their way through the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month (basics here).  Because I am not an expert on either legislative procedure or inside-the-Beltway politics, I do not know if it would be easy or impossible to include add "home confinement fix" to one of these bills.  But I do know that I will always want to believe that Congress at least has the potential to fix problems of its own creation.  But, as this post is meant to stress, I think it important not too lose sight of the fact that this is a fundamentally a congressional problem, not a presidential one.      

Some prior recent related posts:

UPDATE:  Achieving a media troika, the New York Times also published this lengthy article on this topic under the headline "Thousands of Prisoners Were Sent Home Because of Covid. They Don’t Want to Go Back."  Like the Post article, this piece is a bit scattered in its focus while also directing most of the attention on the Justice Department and Biden Administration rather than highlighting Congress's critical role in this story.  This passage is especially notable:

Changing the prison system is one of the few areas that has drawn bipartisanship agreement in Washington. Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, joined Democrats in criticizing the Justice Department memo, which was issued in January.

“Obviously if they can stay where they are, it’s going to save the taxpayers a lot of money,” Mr. Grassley said at the hearing [before the Senate Judiciary Committee in April]. “It will also help people who aren’t prone to reoffend and allows inmates to successfully re-enter society as productive citizens.”

The next sentence of this article, if it were telling the full story, should at the very least note that Congress could "fix" the OLC memo through a simple statutory change. I agree with Senator Grassley that it would be wrong to send all these folks back to prison after they have done well on home confinement, and so I think Senator Grassley should get together with his pals on the Capital Hill and pass a statute to that the law no longer could be interpreted to require sending them all back to prison at taxpayer expense.

June 27, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Terrific CCRC review of new RAND report on presidential pardons

In this post last week, I flagged this massive report produced by RAND Corporation titled "Statistical Analysis of Presidential Pardons."  Helpfully, Margaret Love over at the Collateral Consequence Resource Center has completed this terrific overview of the reports, and here are excerpts from her posting:

In a 224-page statistical analysis of how pardon petitions were evaluated by the Office of the Pardon Attorney (OPA) between 2001 and 2012, the RAND researchers “[did] not find statistically significant evidence that there are racial differences in the rates at which black and white petitioners receive [favorable] pardon recommendations.” (Note that sentence commutations were not a part of the RAND study.)  At the same time, there was also “no question that non-Hispanic white petitioners as a group were more likely to receive a pardon than did black petitioners.”  The apparent contradiction between these two statements can be explained by the fact that white applicants were statistically more likely to satisfy the formal standards that apply to OPA decisions about which cases to recommend for pardon, suggesting that either the formal standards need revision or the pool of applicants needs to be expanded, or both....

Finally, in what may be the most disturbing finding for the Biden Administration, the RAND report observes that OPA appears to be struggling to manage a growing case backlog despite having had its attorney staff augmented during the Obama years....

Since June 2018, in part because of President Trump’s deliberate neglect of the regular pardon process, the backlog of pending pardon petitions has grown to more than 3,000 cases, some of which have been pending for more than a decade, while the commutation caseload now exceeds 12,000 cases.  The RAND report expresses concern that this overwhelming caseload may increase the time it takes to process a pardon application, which it characterizes as already “long and drawn-out.”  Indeed, it suggests that an intractable backlog could continue to grow given the hundreds of thousands of individuals who are eligible to apply for pardon, particularly if they are “motivated to apply under the belief that a more receptive ear currently resides in the White House.”  The report does not suggest alternative ways of dealing with the caseload, such as shortcutting the investigative process or increasing administrative case closures, as much as conceding that such efficiency measures would have racially skewed results.

June 24, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, June 20, 2021

"The President’s Conditional Pardon Power"

The title of this post is the title of this new Note in the latest issue of the Harvard Law Review.  Here is the end of the Note's introduction:

This Note concludes that the President’s pardons may not include conditions that deprive an individual of rights not already deprived by that individual’s conviction (or, in the case of preemptive pardons, rights that would have been deprived by a guilty plea).  This internal limitation is externally reinforced by the Due Process Clause.  This Note’s historical and constitutional arguments should inform judges faced with conditional pardon cases.  Whatever disagreements may arise over this Note’s descriptive account of the conditional pardon power’s limits, the examination of risks from unfettered conditional pardons commends to future administrations the wisdom of prudential limits.

Part I introduces the conditional pardon power jurisprudence.  It begins by examining three cases showing that (1) English common law informs the President’s pardon power and (2) American courts oscillate between two distinct theories of the President’s pardon power.  The first theory, which this Note dubs the “merciful-contract” theory of pardons, envisions pardons as a private act between President and pardon recipient.  By contrast, the “public-welfare” theory understands pardons as an instrument of the general welfare.  This Part next describes two conceptions of the conditional pardon power: a “Broad Position” that would impose no limits on the conditional pardon power and a “Narrow Position” that insists on limits but fails to precisely define them.

Part II argues that the Broad Position cannot be correct.  After establishing that the conditional pardon power poses unique danger to constitutional rights, it concludes that the English common law, the Framing, and structural inference from our constitutional system all suggest a conditional pardon power that is far from plenary.

Part III identifies this limit: pardon conditions may only divest rights already forfeited by dint of conviction.  It explains the limit using examples before fitting it into the theoretical framework of the pardon power.  Finally, this Part compares the identified limit with other proposals and situates it within constitutional theory generally. Part IV concludes.

June 20, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)