“The president’s idle executive power: pardoning”

As the presidential pardon of everyone’s favorite Thanksgiving galliformes makes front-page news across the country (a tradition that the many human clemency petitioners who have spent years awaiting action must struggle to find the whimsy in), two law professors take the federal clemency system to task in a new Washington Post opinion piece.  In the piece, professors Rachel E. Barkow (NYU) and Mark Osler (University of St. Thomas) argue that the long and multi-tiered review process for federal clemency petitions could be significantly improved if the president would minimize the Justice Department’s involvement in the process while shifting responsibility to a bi-partisan review commission.  From the article:

What is broken is no mystery. The key gatekeepers for this process are in the Justice Department — the same agency that prosecutes federal crimes. Unsurprisingly, the department has been reluctant to second-guess its own decisions and rarely recommends that the White House approve a clemency petition. Moreover, each petition must pass through as many as seven levels of review prior to approval, and many of those doing the reviewing (such as the deputy attorney general and the White House counsel) have plates already full with other duties. That’s why the average review time for approved clemency petitions in this administration has been about four years, according to P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political science professor who edits the Pardon Power blog.

It’s easy to envision a better method. As in countless other areas of law, from communications and securities regulation to establishing sentencing guidelines, a dedicated agency comprising experts could address the problem efficiently and effectively. The president should appoint a bipartisan commission of Democrats and Republicans with expertise in criminal law to consider all applications and track data on recidivism and other outcomes. The agency can work with the president’s reentry council to coordinate prisoners’ transitions back to civil society. And because the commission would be politically balanced, the president would not need to worry about being exposed to Willie Horton-style attacks, should a convict commit some new crime after being freed; these will be cases that people of all political stripes agreed deserved relief.

Read the full article here.

Joshua Gaines

Josh is a North Carolina-based attorney and the CCRC's Deputy Director. After graduating from American University in 2012, he worked on the National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Conviction (NICCC), and various other projects dealing with collateral consequences, rights restoration, and reentry.

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