Vol. 2, No. 14
Extra – Wednesday, March 30, 2016
President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 61 prisoners today (Wednesday, March 30, 2016), as a continuation of an effort to more aggressively use the commutation power, particularly as it relates to low-level drug offenders.
The names of the prisoners receiving commutations have not yet been released.
“Despite the progress we have made, it is important to remember that clemency is nearly always a tool of last resort that can help specific individuals, but does nothing to make our criminal justice system on the whole more fair and just,” White House counsel Neil Eggleston wrote in a blog post that went online Wednesday morning.
“Clemency of individual cases alone cannot fix decades of overly punitive sentencing policies. So while we continue to work to resolve as many clemency applications as possible — and make no mistake, we are working hard at this — only broader criminal justice reform can truly bring justice to the many thousands of people behind bars serving unduly harsh and outdated sentences,” Eggleston wrote.
The announcement was intended to blunt a rash of criticism over the past week about the failure of the Administration’s pardon process to live up to its hype.
When the Dept. of Justice’s new acting pardon attorney, former AUSA Robert Zauzmer, took office last month, he found a backlog of over 9,000 clemency petitions awaiting initial processing. Most were the byproduct of Clemency Project 2014, established with great fanfare by DOJ to process additional applications from federal prisoners seeking reductions of unjustifiably long drug sentences.
The Washington Post reported January 19th that his predecessor, Deborah Leff, quit over frustrations with a lack of resources. In her resignation letter, just obtained yesterday by USA Today under a Freedom of Information Act request, Leff accused the Obama administration of telling DOJ attorneys to neglect applications for presidential pardons to give priority to the Justice Department’s initiative to release low-level offenders from prison.
Leff’s resignation letter suggested a broken bureaucratic process at odds with Obama’s announced aim of exercising his pardon power “more aggressively” in the final months of his presidency. She wrote that the administration’s focus on the clemency initiative at the expense of traditional pardons and commutations “means that the requests of thousands of petitioners seeking justice will lie unheard.”
Some commentators in the Washington Post last Friday wondered whether Obama was ever serious about Clemency 2014. The rules for commutation requests that even make it to the overburdened pardons office are inexcusably discouraging. The worst is that inmates must have served at least 10 years of their sentence. Other rules hold that they must not have “a significant criminal history,” they must be nonviolent, low-level offenders, and they must be serving a sentence harsher than they would have gotten if convicted of the same offense today. Those who fall “outside of this initiative,” according to DOJ, can still seek clemency under the old rules if their applications are “especially meritorious.”
Because of this, the Washington Post reported last week, Obama’s clemency record makes him one of the least merciful presidents in history. He has granted just 70 pardons – the lowest number of any full-term president since John Adams – and 187 commutations of sentence (248 with today’s announcement). The White House website today was trumpeting that Obama has issued more commutations than the last six presidents combined. However, it fails to mention that the number of pardons issued is a low not equaled since the 1790s.
Meanwhile, over 1,600 pardon petitions have been denied (more than five of the previous six presidents), as well as more than 8,000 commutation requests (a new record). An additional 3,400 requests have been “closed without presidential action.”
Obama’s record is all the more questionable because he has promised more while delivering less than any president in history. In 2014, then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. encouraged federal prisoners to seek relief, saying there were “still too many people . . . sentenced under the old regime” needing commutation. Holder said the White House had “indicated” that it wanted to “consider additional clemency applications to restore a degree of justice, fairness, and proportionality for deserving individuals who do not pose a threat to public safety.”
However, the Post reported last week, Clemency Project 2014 has become a bureaucratic disaster, assigned to volunteer lawyers and law students with little experience in dealing with the federal criminal justice system.
The White House has announced that it will host a briefing titled Life After Clemency with advocates, academics, and Administration officials to discuss ideas on the President’s clemency initiative and ways to improve paths to reentry. In addition to officials from the White House and the Department of Justice, experts, academics, and commutation recipients will share their expertise and insights on returning to society after years behind bars.
USA Today, Obama issues 61 commutations (March 30, 2016)
Washington Post, On pardons, Obama could go down as one of the most merciless presidents in history (March 25, 2016)
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