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
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.
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:
It’s that time of year again. Odds are that sometime in the next two weeks President Obama will issue some pardons and commute some prison sentences. I have never quite reconciled myself to the unfortunate and ahistorical association of pardoning with the silly turkey ceremony (the Obama girls were right to roll their eyes) and Christmas gift-giving, the result of decades of presidential neglect and sometime Justice Department sabotage of the power. But now that the season for forgiveness is upon us, I can’t wait to see what’s underneath the tree.
It was my fondest hope during the 2008 campaign that this president would want to revive the practice of pardoning, like Jerry Brown in California and Pat Quinn in Illinois, and restore a degree of regularity and accountability to the federal pardon process. But so far President Obama has issued only 52 full pardons, making him the least generous full-term president in our Nation’s history. And so far there is no indication that he intends to reinvigorate the federal pardon process, as Justice Anthony Kennedy urged in an iconic speech to the American Bar Association more than a decade ago, and as scholars and practitioners have regularly urged in less exalted settings ever since. Nor has his Administration proposed any alternative procedure by which individuals with federal convictions can avoid or mitigate collateral consequences, like the set-aside authority in the Youth Corrections Act that was repealed in 1984.
But there is some reason for optimism even this late in the game. President Obama’s evident willingness to use his constitutional power to reduce long drug sentences will hopefully have a spillover effect on the other half of the clemency caseload, the applications for full pardon from people who have long since served their sentences and gone on to live productive and law-abiding lives. There are more than 800 applications for pardon pending in the Justice Department, many from people convicted decades ago whose lives of service have been exemplary. They deserve something more than a gambler’s chance at forgiveness.
In their Washington Post op ed on the President’s neglect of his pardon power posted earlier on this site, Rachel Barkow and Mark Osler are critical of the Justice Department’s bureaucratic process for processing applications for executive clemency, which they argue takes a very long time and yields very little. (The New York Times editorialized last year in a similar vein about how DOJ has effectively sidelined the president’s power as a tool for justice for more than 20 years.) Barkow and Osler ask why Justice considered it necessary or wise to farm out the processing of thousands of petitions from federal prisoners to a private consortium called Clemency Project 2014, rather than reform the official process: “such a short-term program does nothing to fix the problematic regular clemency process that will survive this administration unless action is taken.”
Barkow and Osler focus on sentence commutations, and not on the other common type of clemency grant: a full pardon, typically sought by those who have fully served their court-imposed sentences, to avoid or mitigate collateral consequences. In addition to the thousands of prisoner petitions awaiting consideration by DOJ’s Pardon Attorney, there are now more than 800 petitions for full pardon pending in the Justice Department. Most of these petitions were filed by individuals who completed their court-imposed sentences long ago but remain burdened by legal restrictions and social stigma. A majority of the pending petitions were filed years ago and have long since been fully investigated. What can be holding things up?
A couple of news items about an increase in clemency applications in Canada made me curious to learn more about how restoration of rights works in our Northern neighbor.
Canada has long had a policy of virtually automatic sealing of criminal records through what is known as a “record suspension” (before 2012, called a “pardon”). The Criminal Records Act (CRA) makes record suspension available from the Parole Board of Canada for any offense except sex crimes involving children, and to any individual except those convicted of multiple serious crimes, after waiting periods of five years from completion of sentence for “summary” offenses and 10 years for “indictable” offenses. (Prior to 2012 the waiting periods were three and five years.) Non-conviction records may be purged sooner.
Once a record has been suspended, all information pertaining to convictions is taken out of the Canadian Police Information Centre and may not be disclosed without permission from the Minister of Public Safety. The CRA states that no employment application form within the federal public service may ask any question that would require an applicant to disclose a conviction. It is unlawful under Section 3 of the Canadian Human Rights Act to discriminate in employment or housing or union membership against anyone based upon “an offence for which a pardon has been granted or in respect of which a record suspension has been ordered.”
In 2012-13 the PBC ordered more than 6600 pardons and records suspensions, 97% of all applications received. (According to the PBC website, since 1970 more than 460,000 Canadians have received pardons and record suspensions. “96 percent of these are still in force, indicating that the vast majority of pardon/record suspension recipients remain crime-free in the community.”)
The 2012 amendment of the CRA to extend the eligibility waiting periods has resulted in an increase in applications for the extraordinary remedy of “clemency,” which has higher standards but no eligibility waiting period. Clemency, formally known as the “Royal Prerogative of Mercy” (RPM), may be granted in federal cases by the Governor General or the Governor in Council (i.e. Federal Cabinet), and applications are staffed by the PBC. Clemency is intended “only for rare cases in which considerations of justice, humanity and compassion override the normal administration of justice.” All other avenues of relief must have been exhausted, and there must be must be “clear and strong evidence of injustice or undue hardship.” In contrast to the thousands of ordinary records suspensions granted each year in Canada, there are only a handful of these extraordinary clemency grants. In 2012 there were 52 RPM applications and only 12 grants.
Larry Hogan, Republican candidate in the Maryland gubernatorial race, criticized current governor Martin O’Malley’s sparing use of executive clemency and pardon power.
As reported in the Washington Post:
Republican Larry Hogan says a governor’s authority to commute sentences and pardon prisoners is an important power that he would rejuvenate if he is elected governor.
Hogan spoke in an interview with reporters of The Associated Press on Monday. Hogan says he believes Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration hasn’t made pardons and commutations a priority of his tenure. Hogan says while he considers himself to be a tough law and order candidate, there are people who need the pardon and commutation process. He says he would seek help former Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s help in using the power more.