DOJ Completes Processing 16,000+ Clemency Requests – Update for January 17, 2017

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.


pardon160321President Obama promised to commute up to 2,000 drug sentences. He has about 75 hours left to come up with the final 850 he needs.

The Washington Post reported yesterday afternoon that Justice Department officials have completed their review of more than 16,000 clemency petitions filed by federal prisoners over the past two years and sent their last recommendations to Obama. The President is reportedly set to grant “hundreds” more commutations to drug offenders during his final days in office, but apparently not the grand categorical gesture than some have urged him to approve.

The national discourse on commutations – which had mostly focused on drug defendants – changed dramatically last Wednesday when NBC News reported Army Private Bradley Manning – who released a trove of U.S. secrets to Wikileaks, leading to an espionage conviction in 2013 – is on Obama’s “short list” for a sentence commutation. Manning, who reportedly suffers from gender dysphoria, got a 35-year sentence, but is eligible for parole in three more years.

hugs170117The media have been speculating about a Manning commutation for months. Last Friday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest, answered a media question about Manning and Edward Snowden (who stole thousands of secrets from the government and fled to hide in Russia). “So, I think the situation of these two individuals is quite different,” Earnest suggested. “I can’t speculate at this point about to what degree that will have an impact on the President’s consideration of clemency requests. I know that there’s a temptation because the crimes were relatively similar to lump the cases together, but there are some important differences, including the scale of the crimes that were committed and the consequences of their crimes.”

Earnest suggested Obama may be willing to offer Manning relief because – unlike Snowdon – Manning took responsibility for his actions in court. It also implies that Obama is willing to commute Manning’s sentence, an act that will be enormously unpopular with a lot of people. Obama’s willingness to do so increases the likelihood he will “go long” on the final commutations to BOP prisoners.

While the media was atwitter about Manning, DOJ was burining the midnight oil to slog through thousands of remaining clemency applications from less-known federal drug offenders. “We were in overdrive,” Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates said. “We were determined to live up to our commitment. It was 24-7 over the Christmas break.”

With 11 days to go, burning the midnight oil...
      Burning the midnight oil at Justice…

At the end of last August, Yates promised DOJ would review every petition from a drug offender that was still in the department’s possession at that time — about 6,195 at that time. The DOJ did that, and even included several hundred petitions received through September 15, after her cutoff date, as well as petition from people with life sentences filed as late as November 30. The final count of petitions reviewed was 16,776.

The urgency arises from the generally-accepted perception that President-elect Donald Trump will dismantle Obama’s clemency initiative, which has resulted in commutation of sentence for 1,176 drug thus far. More than 400 were serving life sentences.

Yates said Obama will grant “a significant” number of commutations this week, but would not specify a number. The Post quoted several people close to the process as saying it will be several hundred. Perhaps in preparation for the announcement this week, last Friday the White House issued with its usual stealth a list of 804 clemency denials, which could be a final cleanup before the major commutation announcement this week.

Ohio State University law professor Douglas Berman wrote last night that DOJ and Obama deserve credit for “ultimately making clemency an 11th hour priority. But given that Prez Obama set of modern record for fewest clemencies during his first term in office, and especially because he leaves in place the same troublesome clemency process that has contributed to problems in the past, I will still look at Obama’s tenure largely as an opportunity missed.”

Shadowproof, White House justifies Chelsea Manning’s possible commutation (Jan. 13, 2017)

Washington Post, Obama to commute hundreds of federal drug sentences in final grants of clemency (Jan. 16, 2017)

Sentencing Law and Policy, After reviewing tens of thousands of requests, Obama Administration reportedly finds a few hundred more prisoners worthy of clemency (Jan. 16, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root


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