Last week Sentencing Law & Policy highlighted a new article by CCRC director Margaret Love that examines the Justice Department’s historical role in administering the president’s pardon power. The article (“Justice Department Administration of the President’s Pardon Power: A Case Study in Institutional Conflict of Interest”) concludes that an institutional conflict of interest has made Justice a progressively less responsible and effective steward of the constitutional power, and urges the president to relocate the pardon program to the Executive Office of the President. The article, to be published in a forthcoming issue of the University of Toledo Law Review, can be downloaded here. Here is its abstract:
The president’s constitutional pardon power has been administered by the attorney general since before the Civil War, but this arrangement has never been adequately explained or justified. On its face it appears rife with conflict of institutional interests: how could the agency responsible for convicting people and putting them in prison also be tasked with forgiving them and setting them free? In spite of these apparently antithetical missions, the Justice Department managed the pardon program in a low-key and reliable manner for well over a century, staffing it with a handful of career lawyers operating on a shoestring budget, and churning out hundreds of favorable clemency recommendations each year for the president’s consideration. While there were occasionally controversial grants there were never scandalous ones, and the president was able to use his power to good effect in wartime and in peace.
It is only in the past two decades that questions have been raised about the integrity and functionality of the pardon process, focusing squarely on the agency and individuals standing as gatekeeper to the president’s power. President Obama’s decision in early 2014 to launch a large-scale clemency initiative, and the Justice Department’s unprecedented decision to rely upon a consortium of private organizations to manage it, make this a propitious time to consider whether the presidency is well-served by an arrangement making officials responsible for prosecuting crime the primary source of clemency advice.
This essay concludes that the culture and mission of the Justice Department have in recent years become determinedly and irreconcilably hostile to the beneficent purposes of the pardon power, and to its regular use by the president. The only way to deal with the institutional conflict that produced and perpetuates this situation is to transfer the pardon program to the president’s direct supervision in the Executive Office of the President. This move will have a variety of benefits, including facilitating the president’s ability to oversee the workings of the criminal justice system, for which he has a special responsibility under the Constitution. More specifically, it will introduce salutary political accountability to federal prosecutions through presidential oversight and potential revision. Finally, it will give the president control for the first time in decades over his own “benign prerogative.”
Visitors to this site are familiar with the expungement order issued by Federal District Judge John Gleeson on May 21. See Jane Doe v. United States, now on appeal to the Second Circuit. A second Jane Doe, a codefendant of the first, applied for expungement on June 23, and on June 29 Judge Gleeson ordered the government to show cause on or before August 28 why her application should not be granted. A hearing has been scheduled for September 18.
Yesterday the Judge issued a new order directing the government to include in its briefing “its view as to whether I have authority to enter a certificate of rehabilitation in lieu of expungement, and if so, the appropriateness of entering such a certificate in this case.”
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.
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.
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.
USA Today has published a White House document detailing President Obama’s policy on granting clemency, including both sentence commutation and post-sentence pardons. In a memorandum dated July 13, 2010 to the Acting Deputy Attorney General, White House Counsel Robert Bauer “convey[ed] the President’s views” on the exercise of his constitutional pardon power, affirming traditional standards but emphasizing that there are “certain offenses for which a pardon should very rarely, if ever, be granted absent truly exceptional circumstances.” Among these were “large-scale drug trafficking” in which the applicant had “a significant role,” and financial fraud cases involving “substantial loss to the federal government or its programs.”
The memo affirmed the five-year eligibility waiting period for a pardon, overriding a 2001 policy of the Bush Administration (also published for the first time) that imposed an informal 10-year waiting period. At the same time, it emphasized that the passage of additional time may strengthen an applicant’s case for pardon: Read more
Delaware Governor Jack Markell has granted more than 1500 pardons in his six years in office, substantially more than any of his predecessors. According to articles by Chris Barrish and Jonathan Starkey in the Delaware News Journal, the “dramatic increase” in the number of people applying for pardon in Delaware has been “driven by getting jobs.” In defending his record of generous pardoning, Governor Markell noted that the state had adopted 50 new background check requirements for employment in the past several years, and that people with convictions need a governor’s pardon to enable them to overcome the stigma of conviction to obtain employment and stay on the road to rehabilitation. The two articles are here and here.
For the third time in six weeks, President Obama has spoken on the record about his intention to make more “aggressive” use of his pardon power in the final months of his term to commute long drug sentences. It appears he really means it — and the only thing that may stop him from setting a modern record (perhaps even more impressive than the drug commutations of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson) is the pace of recommendations coming from the Justice Department via Clemency Project 2014. (Comments on his other recent statements are here and here.)
Hopefully the President will grant more full pardons as well, though his comments on that score have been less encouraging.
During a Town Hall in South Carolina on March 6, President Obama spoke for the second time in recent weeks about his intention to use his pardon power more generously in the final two years of his term.
Responding to a criminal defense attorney who asked what she could do to “increase the number of federal pardons,” the President explained that he was taking a “new approach” to pardons after receiving surprisingly few favorable recommendations from the Justice Department during his first term. He said he had asked the Attorney General to “open up” the pardon process, and to work with advocacy groups and public defenders to make people more aware of the availability of this relief:
In a wide-ranging interview with Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith posted on February 11, President Obama was asked about the employment difficulties faced by young black men with a felony record. His response suggests that he may be interested in addressing through his pardon power the problems faced by people with federal convictions seeking restoration of rights and status, as he addressed them through law-making as a member of the Illinois legislature. This in turn suggests to us that the Justice Department may now be engaged, at the President’s direction, in a more proactive consideration of applications for a full presidential pardon. We post the exchange in full, so our readers can judge its import for themselves: Read more