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Pardon me… – Update for December 14, 2017

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


Well, boys and girls, the stockings are soon to be hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that the annual emesis of Presidential pardons and commutations flow from the White House in celebration of Christmas.

Obama leaves town, stranding 7,800 commutation applications.
Obama left DC, stranding 10,000 commutation applications.

It’s almost hard to recall the euphoria a year ago, with thousands of federal prisoners – nearly all of them drug offenders – followed events at the White House like they never had before, awaiting word on presidential clemency as the clock wound down on President Barack Obama. By the time The Donald rode down Pennsylvania Avenue, PBO had commuted more than 1,700 federal prisoner sentences. But Barry and Michelle climbed about the ex-presidential helicopter leaving 10,000 clemency petitions languishing on his desk without action.

We have had a lot of people whom Obama left hanging wondering whether the new President would take up their cause. The Atlantic magazine considered the question last week, and those folks probably will not like the answer. The Atlantic quotes Mark Osler, one of the architects of Obama’s clemency program, as predicting that the remaining 10,000 commutation petitions “will still be pending when the present occupant of the White House leaves—unless they’ve been fed to the shredder in the interim.”

While Osler, a law professor and clemency expert, said he disagreed with the former president over some elements of the petitioning process, “at least Obama’s heart was in the right place. Clemency is going nowhere in the Jeff Sessions DOJ.”

The Atlantic said DOJ could not be reached for comment on plans for clemency, but the magazine suggests the Trump Administration’s intentions seem manifestly different from Obama’s. “Where the previous White House tried to roll back the harshest sentences for low-level drug offenses,” the article said, “Attorney General Jeff Sessions has revived mandatory minimums. Where Obama supported criminal-justice reform, Trump has promised a return to “law and order.”

coal171215No one should forget that both Trump and Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III were harsh critics of Obama’s Clemency Initiative, calling its expanded guidelines “a thumb in the eye” of law-enforcement and court personnel. Thus far this year, Trump has issued three pardons – one last August for Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, well known for his systematic mistreatment of jail inmates and immigrants, and two turkeys during Thanksgiving Week.

The only pardon talk going on right now has to do with current and former White House staff, with the clemency power being used as a bludgeon against Special Counsel Robert Mueller. It may be high drama, but for federal prisoners, it is nothing but one big lump of coal.

The Atlantic, I Don’t See Much Mercy in Donald Trump or Jeff Sessions (Dec. 9, 2017)

American Constitution Society, Considering Presidential Pardons after Flynn’s Guilty Plea (Dec. 11, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root


Obama Clemency Initiative Was As Arbitrary As We Thought It Was – Update for September 7, 2017

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


70908When President Obama (remember him?) announced an initiative in 2014 to grant clemency to people serving unduly harsh sentences in the federal prison system, there was a land rush to apply. Ultimately, about 12% of the federal prison submitted applications seeking executive grace.

By the time the dust settled on the morning of The Donald’s inauguration, President O had granted 1,696 of the applications filed. This number, about 7% of all applicants, was dwarfed by the 7,881 applications left stranded when the Obamas fled the coming Trumpocalypse in a Marine helicopter.

Obama leaves town, stranding 7,800 commutation applications.
Obama leaves town, stranding 7,881 commutation applications.

Many of the inmates whose applications were denied complained that racism played a role, favoritism played a role, or simply that the clemency staff was throwing darts at a wall, and granting applications they happened to hit. Last Tuesday, the U.S. Sentencing Commission issued a report on the late great 2014 Clemency Initiative, and what it found suggests that the race-conspiracy people are wrong, but the dart-at-the-wall folks are spot-on.

Initially, the report – entitled “An Analysis of the Implementation of the 2014 Clemency Initiative” – does not especially settle the dark theories, espoused chiefly by white inmates, that President Obama was only interested in pardoning minority inmates. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 53% of all drug inmates are black, and 57% are Hispanic. However, 71% of all clemency recipients were black, 19% were white, and 9% were Hispanic.

The fact that crack cocaine defendants have been 81% black, and that crack sentencing ranges have traditionally been stratospheric, thanks to the previous 100:1 ratio of crack to powder – may account for this. However, it would seem that the people with the most right to complain about being excluded from clemency would be Hispanics.

star170908At the same time, the Report does substantiate the widely-held belief that the Clemency Initiative shut down any chances for commutation of sentences other than drug offenses. The real news, however, is that despite its criteria and processing standards and lofty rhetoric and self-congratulatory righteousness, the Clemency Initiative was as arbitrary as a Star Chamber proceeding.

At the outset, the Department of Justice announced six criteria for clemency. Initially, those were considered to be “processing” criteria, but later morphed into “eligibility” criteria. It turns out they could have been gumdrops or pixie dust, for all of the relevance they had to the process. The standards were that to qualify, a clemency applicant

• would have had to have gotten a lower sentence under   txxxx  h existing law;
• must be a low-level, nonviolent offender;
• must have served at least 10 years;
• must not have a significant criminal history;
• must have had good conduct in prison; and
• must have no history of violence

Deputy Attorney General James Cole made it clear at the outset that “the initiative is open to candidates who meet six criteria” and that “a good number of inmates will not meet the six criteria.”

The Sentencing Commission Report contains good news and bad news. The good news (already known to a lot of people) is that DOJ was just kidding. It turns out that people didn’t have to ring all six bells after all: only 54 of the 1,696 people receiving a commutation met all of the six criteria. Only 5% of the winners met five of the criteria, 35% met four, 38% met three, 19% met two and 3% met only one. Two guys got clemency after going 0-6: they were career criminals, violent, had bad conduct, were high-level drug people and hadn’t yet done 10 years. Sweet for them.

factorschart170908It turns out that 62% commutation recipients had criminal history scores of 3 points or higher, 23% were assigned to the highest Criminal History Category, and 16% were career offenders. Thirty percent had serious misconduct while in prison, and 13% had violent misconduct in prison.

Now the bad news, which was also suspected (if not known) by many people. Examining all the announced Clemency Initiative factors together, the Sentencing Commission report estimated that 2,687 inmates met all six of the Clemency Initiative criteria, yet only 92 of the got clemency. “Therefore,” the Report drily states, “there were 2,595 offenders incarcerated when the Clemency Initiative was announced who appear to have met all the factors for clemency under the Initiative at the end of President Obama’s term in office but who did not obtain relief.”

factorschart170908“The Obama administration’s 2014 clemency initiative helped reduce sentences for thousands of federal defendants at many times an historic rate,” the Marshall Project gushed the other day, “but it still was not as efficient or as organized as it could have been, a new federal report concludes. So many more candidates met the requirements of clemency than were granted it.”

Let’s call it what it is. Despite the proclaimed “six criteria,” nearly 2,600 inmates who were perfect fits were ignored or denied while half of the clemency winners met only one-half or fewer of the standards. Obama Clemency was not a process: it was a crap shoot (unless, of course, you happened to be a trans-sexual darling of the left convicted of espionage against America).

tainwreck170908“Not as efficient or organized?” The same could be said of a train wreck.

U.S. Sentencing Commission, An Analysis of the Implementation of the 2014 Clemency Initiative (Sept. 5, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root