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.
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
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: