The Justice Department has decided to pursue its appeal of Judge John Gleeson’s May 21 order expunging the conviction of a woman who could not keep a job because of her criminal record. Its brief in U.S. v. Doe (Jane Doe I) can be accessed here.
Meanwhile, briefing is underway in Judge Gleeson’s second expungement case (Jane Doe II), in which he has also asked the parties and a “policy expert” to advise him on his authority to issue a “certificate of rehabilitation.” Judge Gleeson commented to the New York Times on the general problem of collateral consequences:
“As a society we really need to have a serious conversation on this subject of people with convictions’ never being able to work again,” Judge Gleeson wrote in an email. “A strong argument can be made that the answer to this problem should be more systemic, through legislation, not on a case-by-case basis in individual judges’ courtrooms.”
Petitioner’s brief in Jane Doe II is due on October 5, the brief of the “policy expert” is due on October 8, and argument has been scheduled for October 15. The government’s brief is here, and briefs of petitioner and amicus will be posted here when filed.
Slate has posted a new piece by Leon Neyfakh entitled “The Pardon Process Is Broken.” The piece points out that “presidents are granting clemency far less often than they once did,” and asks “Why?” It answers its own question by distilling an article by Margaret Love to be published in the Toledo Law Review, which argues that the low grant rate reflects overwhelmingly negative recommendations from the Justice Department. In response to Slate’s invitation, Justice had the following comments on Love’s proposal:
The mission of the Department of Justice is to enforce the law and defend the interests of the United States according to the law; to ensure public safety against threats foreign and domestic; to provide federal leadership in preventing and controlling crime; to seek just punishment for those guilty of unlawful behavior; and to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans. The work of the Office of the Pardon Attorney is an integral part of the Department’s mission.
These comments seem to concede the point that the Office of the Pardon Attorney has ceased to operate as an independent source of advice for the president in clemency matters, but instead has become an extension of the law enforcement agenda of the Department’s prosecutors. They evidence the key role the Justice Department has played in the atrophy of the constitutional pardon power.
The Guardian has published a detailed account of a case in the queue awaiting consideration by the President for commutation of sentence. Ray Bennett was convicted in 1991 of acting as a courier for a crack cocaine distributor, and sentenced to life in prison based on two prior state misdemeanors. “The judge who sentenced Bennett did his duty reluctantly, saying the drug runners were ‘just country folks’ and not the major traffickers that Congress likely had in mind.”
Bennett has now served more than 24 years in prison, has an exemplary record of conduct while incarcerated, and has long since conquered the addiction to drugs that led to his conviction. His clemency application was filed with the Pardon Attorney through Clemency Project 2014 in early April. We reprint substantial portions of the Guardian article to show the kinds of cases that may be acted on by the President in coming months.
This piece was originally published in The Crime Report on July 13, and republished in revised form on July 16.
On Monday President Obama announced in a video address that he had commuted the sentences of 46 people sentenced to long prison terms for drug offenses. His counsel, Neil Eggleston, stated that “While I expect the President will issue additional commutations and pardons before the end of his term, it is important to recognize that clemency alone will not fix decades of overly punitive sentencing policies.“
Mr. Eggleston added that “the President is committed to using all the tools at his disposal to remedy unfairness in our criminal justice system.” However, judging from his speech to the NAACP the next day, clemency is the only one of those tools that is calculated to result in any more prison releases.
In commuting the sentences of 46 individuals serving long drug sentences, President Obama declared that America is a “nation of second chances” in a video address posted on the White House website. But that sunny optimism about our country’s willingness to forgive hasn’t led him to grant very many pardons, the relief whose purpose is to restore rights and status to those who have fully served their sentences, to give them a second chance at first class citizenship. Indeed, as Michael Isikoff reported the same day the commutations were issued, Obama’s 64 pardons are the fewest issued by any full-term president since John Adams. Indeed, the President has commuted more in the past six months than he has pardoned in his entire time in office.
The President’s determination to reduce unjustly lengthy prison sentences is commendable and historically significant. But it need and should not lead him to the neglect the other part of the clemency caseload, the petitions filed by individuals who have led exemplary lives for many years but are still burdened by severe collateral consequences and the stigma of conviction. Unfortunately those petitions appear to have have been shunted to the back burner in the excitement of the so-called “clemency initiative.”
Yahoo News has published a piece by its chief investigative reporter Michael Isikoff commenting on how few pardons President Obama has granted, and how backed up the Justice Department’s pardon office seems to be. He illustrates the problem of presidential inaction with the case of Sala Udin, a Pittsburgh community activist and former City Council member, whose application for pardon of a 1970 firearms conviction has been awaiting decision for several years. Isikoff reports that while the President is likely to issue a number of sentence commutations this week, no pardons will be forthcoming. This leaves the 800 people whose pardon applications are pending in the Justice Department wondering whether there is hope for forgiveness during this president’s term.
What does it take to get a pardon from President Obama?
It’s a question Sala Udin, a former Pittsburgh City Council member and onetime civil rights Freedom Rider, is asking a lot this summer, more than three years after he first asked a president he deeply admires to grant him a pardon for a 44-year-old federal firearms conviction.
The Justice Department is urging lawyers for federal prisoners to move quickly to file clemency petitions for their clients, lest the clock run out before the end of the President’s term. U.S. Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff told volunteer lawyers in a video seminar last week that petitions not submitted until Obama’s final year may not be considered, at least by him. As reported by Greg Korte of USA Today, Leff suggested that lawyers might be spending too much time briefing cases, and she encouraged them to file even if they have not been able to obtain all documents.
“While I greatly admire your legal skills, this is not the time to prepare a treatise of hundreds of pages,” she told the lawyers.
We cross-post a recent comment about the Obama clemency initiative from Professor Doug Berman’s Sentencing Law and Policy blog because it proposes to supplement the constitutional pardon power with a relief mechanism built into the legal system (there, a sentence reduction by the court rather than presidential commutation). It reflects the institutional and practical concerns of Enlightenment philosopher Cesare Beccaria, who proposed in 1764 that
Clemency is a virtue which belongs to the legislator, and not to the executor of the laws; a virtue which ought to shine in the code, and not in private judgment.
Beccaria’s view that clemency should “shine in the code” has a special resonance where collateral consequences are concerned since pardons have become so rare in recent years. Indeed, Judge John Gleeson might have invoked Beccaria when he expunged the conviction of a woman who was unable to find employment because of her criminal record. We intend to keep arguing in this space for a statutory restoration remedy for the federal system, whatever form it may take. Read more
An effective NPR piece tells the story of Tyrone Peake, a Pennsylvania man whose 1981 conviction for attempted theft barred him from employment as a caregiver in a nursing home, despite training and certification that qualified him for the job. The state law making people with a felony record absolutely ineligible for employment in any health care facility in the state was was held unconstitutional by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court 15 years ago on equal protection grounds. However, it remains on the books and enforced despite repeated rulings by lower courts invalidating it in particular cases. Now another lawsuit has been filed, with Mr. Peake as one of the plaintiffs, that seeks to put an end to this broad and unfair collateral sanction once and for all. The lawsuit is described in the following article from the website of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, one of the law’s challengers. Read more
USA Today reports that unexpected administrative complications continue to delay the clemency initiative launched by the Obama administration last year. More than a year after the Justice Department sought assistance from private organizations in identifying federal prisoners deserving of sentence commutation, that ancillary process has submitted only 31 cases for favorable presidential action. In light of the fact that more than 1500 volunteer lawyers have been working since last fall on cases assigned by Clemency Project 2014, this modest number is surprising.
Lawyers involved in the effort say the year-old clemency initiative has been hampered by the complexity of the cases and questions about the eligibility criteria, which may still be too strict to help most of the prison population.
The result is a system that appears even more backlogged than it was before the initiative began.