Tag Archives: pardon

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


Turkeys 3, Prisoners 0 – Update for November 28, 2017

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


presidential_pardon_thanksgiving_tile_coasterThe good news from the Trump White House is that the President has issued 1.5 times more pardons in his first 10 months in office as did either President Obama or President George W. Bush. The bad news is that the pardons only number three, all of the recipients were turkeys of one type of plumage or another, and none of the  pardons suggests the President will be very interested in further clemency.

arpaio171128The first act came in late August, when Trump pardoned primo turkey Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio – already well known for his harsh treatment of inmates – after he was convicted of contempt of court for ignoring federal court orders against harassing Hispanics. Prisoners applying for executive clemency are advised by the Justice Department that a show of contrition really helps, but that’s not necessarily a condition if you’re the good Sheriff.

A week ago today, President Trump pardoned two more turkeys, both more the Meleagris gallopavo kind, in the annual pre-Thanksgiving pardoning ritual that has been around for 30, 50 or 140 years, depending on the historian you believe.

Ohio State University law professor Doug Berman noted that Obama, Bush and Clinton “all started their presidencies with two full years in which they failed to use their historic clemency powers in any way. But Prez Trump is unlike his predecessors in so many ways, and his use of the pardon power is yet another example.” After the pardons of Phoenix-area Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the turkeys named Wishbone and Drumstick last week, Prof. Berman wonders about the next acts of clemency: “who knows?”

pardon171128But Trump himself has in the past as well as last Tuesday implied a lack of enthusiasm for the kinds of clemency Obama pursued. After announcing that Wishbone and Drumstick will join the two turkeys Obama pardoned last year, “Tater” and “Tot,” Trump joked that he is not allowed to reverse Obama’s turkey pardons.

“As many of you know,” Trump said, “I have been very active in overturning a number of executive actions by my predecessor. However I have been informed by the White House Counsel’s office that Tater and Tot’s pardons cannot under any circumstances be revoked. Tater and Tot, you can rest easy.”

Maybe the birds can shake their tailfeathers for joy, but the people most interested in clemency can fairly read into Trump’s statement a decided lack of interest in the Obama-era clemency.

Sentencing Law and Policy, Hasn’t Prez Trump has already pardoned a turkey before this week’s traditional ceremony? (Nov. 20, 2017)

Business Insider, Trump pardons ‘Drumstick’ the turkey and jokes about overturning Obama’s turkey pardons (Nov. 21, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root


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


Is There Big Clemency News Coming? – Update for January 9, 2017

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


We’re down to 11 more days of President Obama to finish whatever he has planned on commutation of sentences, and we’re hearing a couple of things to suggest that something big is about to happen.

whatsgoingon170109A few weeks ago, we heard that the Obama Administration had asked the Dept. of Justice for an opinion as to whether Obama could commute sentences without naming individual names, more of a blanket commutation for those who met certain criteria on their sentences, prison conduct and the like. The rumor was second-hand, but we did confirm that the source was likely in a position to be aware of the information he was quoted as passing along.

We don’t know what advice the DOJ provided on the subject (or even if it did), but the question tantalizingly suggests White House interest in a large-scale across-the-board commutation.

Then last Thursday, we learned from a Clemency Project 2014 lawyer that one of the cases we had been working on with her – a guy who had been rejected for clemency by the Project last summer – had been reconsidered. The Project needed a formal application worked up and filed with the Pardon Attorney promptly. We made the Friday midnight deadline, and we were interested at the sudden flurry of interest and demand for an immediate filing.

We think something’s up.

The media still include the predictable skeptics – including the incoming Attorney General – criticizing the Obama clemency push. Jeffrey Sessions, a former U.S. attorney whom Trump has tapped to be the next AG, complains that “so-called ‘low-level, non-violent’ offenders” do not exist in the federal prison system. Other complain that with a recidivism rate of 75%, three out of four people getting commutations will commit new crimes. 

Another critic argued that with the commutations, “Obama has effectively undermined the justice systems of the states and… puts Americans’ lives and property at risk.”  (This, of course, is nonsense: Obama cannot pardon state inmates, only federal ones).

pardon160321But beyond the naysayers’ cants, report are increasingly speculating about clemencies to come. In a piece about commuting the sentencing of Obama’s old friend and Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, Obama himself suggested that he planned to do more: “I study these cases on an individual basis. As you know, I have exercised my commutation powers very aggressively to make sure that we are not over sentencing people, particularly low-level drug crimes. Some of these higher-profiler cases, we’ll see what gets to my desk.”

P.S. Ruckman, a political science professor at Northern Illinois University and author of the PardonPower blog – which tracks clemency decisions by presidents and state governors – said he expects “commutations to a few hundred more drug offenders, and a handful of pardons,” mostly in drug cases, before Obama leaves office.” Douglas Berman, an Ohio State University law professor and sentencing expert, speculated that because Obama’s “shown a commitment to reduce sentences that he thinks are unjust or excessive, maybe his last few batches will include some high-profile folks.”

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

Margaret Colgate Love, the Pardon Attorney under President George W. Bush, told Slate magazine that the Obama administration has “already had perhaps the most prolific final year of any president. But that’s only when measured against his fairly barren first seven years. His administration has pledged to act on every one of the thousands of commutation applications filed pursuant to the 2014 initiative, which means that there will either be thousands of grants or thousands of denials in the final weeks. Either way, he will be subject to criticism—and the pardon power itself may be the main casualty.”

Slate, The George W. Bush Advice Obama Should Have Taken (Jan. 5, 2017)

Chicago Sun-Times, Patti Blagojevich on Obama commutation hope: ‘He didn’t say no’ (Jan. 6, 2017)

The Lens, Obama commutes sentences of hundreds of cocaine dealers who targeted kids (Jan. 4, 2017)

The Hill, Last gasps of Obama’s imperial presidency (Jan. 5, 2017)

San Francisco Chronicle, Prominent prisoners’ supporters pin pardon hopes on Obama (Jan. 7, 2017)

 –Thomas L. Root