New clemency statistics just posted on the Pardon Attorney’s website show that almost 1000 petitions for full pardon were filed in FY 2016, and that more than 1900 pardon petitions are presently pending. We have become accustomed to seeing huge numbers of commutation filings, but the large number of pardon filings is much more surprising in light of President Obama’s meager pardon grant rate to date. The 998 petitions filed in the 12-month period just concluded are almost twice the number filed in any single year since the Roosevelt Administration, including in the analogous period in the Bush 43 presidency. We reported in August that there were 1378 pardon petitions pending in June – which means that 550 new petitions must have been filed in less than 4 months. That’s as many pardon petitions as have been filed in any full year in the past 75 years.
In August we reported on President Obama’s stated intention to grant a large number of full pardons before the end of his term, in addition to sentence commutations: “I would argue that by the time I leave office, the number of pardons that we grant will be roughly in line with what other presidents have done.” But to match even George W. Bush’s 189 pardon grants, President Obama will have to grant more than 120 pardons in the next three months.
White House Counsel Neil Eggleston stated yesterday that the number of commutation grants since 2014 “make clear that the President and his administration have succeeded in efforts to reinvigorate the clemency process.” But without action on the pardon side of the clemency docket it is too early to claim more than partial success.
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 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.
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