President promises more pardons (we think)

new_clean_presidential_seal_by_sharpwriter-d486yc8In 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:

We asked our readers [for] questions and we got a lot of questions about weed. One guy, Shawn Gould from Wilmington, it’s a familiar situation. He has a felony marijuana possession conviction, so he can’t get a job. He said he can’t get a job at Boston Market. A kind of problem that disproportionately affects young black men like him. This is obviously a policy challenge you’ve spent your whole career — one of them — thinking about, but you’ve been president for six years. What do you say to him?



Obama: We have tried to begin a process of reforming how we deal with nonviolent drug offenses, starting with Eric Holder, our attorney general, providing different criteria for evaluation for U.S. attorneys, suggesting to them they don’t always just have to charge the maximum in order for them to do a good job. In fact, sometimes it’s more appropriate to look at whether a charge against a nonviolent drug offender is the right charge. We are reaching out to judges and lawyers — both prosecutors and defense bar — to look at how we can begin to more systematically change sentencing when it comes to nonviolent drug offenses. We’ve revamped the pardoning office in the Justice Department because, traditionally, we weren’t reaching a lot of nonviolent offenders who, if they received a pardon, perhaps would be in a better position to get employed.  Overall – and the final thing is our office of drug prevention policy, one of the things we’re trying to do is move off just an enforcement/incarceration strategy more to a public health, treatment strategy. . . .

This is the first we’ve heard that the Justice Department’s pardon process has been “revamped” in order to “reach[] a lot of nonviolent offenders who, if they received a pardon, perhaps would be in a better position to be employed.”  We knew that, at the President’s direction, the Justice Department had appointed a new Pardon Attorney and enlisted the services of hundreds of private lawyers to process clemency applications from individuals seeking release from prison.  But this is the first sign that the President may also be interested in granting clemency to people who have completed their sentences but remain burdened with legal restrictions and social stigma.  This is welcome news and, truth be told, long overdue.

Recently USA Today’s Greg Korte reported that President Obama’s pardoning record is the least generous in our Nation’s history, and that his few pardon grants have mostly gone to low-profile individuals convicted of minor crimes many years ago.  (“The 50-year-old pardon: Obama picks safe clemency cases”).  Based on this and other news accounts, their primary reasons for seeking pardon seem to relate more to firearms and forgiveness than they do to jobs.

We hope to see some further evidence in the near future of a revitalization and re-purposing of the pardon program to address the situation of those who are seeking relief from collateral consequences.  We also hope that President Obama will not wait until his final year to press the Justice Department to increase the staff resources devoted to this part of the clemency caseload.  Both Presidents Clinton and Bush waited too long to inquire into the state of the Justice Department’s pardon program, and at least in President Clinton’s case this delay resulted in considerable embarrassment at the end of his term.

President Bush commendably avoided what he later described in a memoir of his presidency as a “last-minute frenzy” of pardon requests from “outside the formal channels.” He recounts how he advised his successor about how to handle pardon requests: “On the ride up Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day, I told Barack Obama about my frustrations with the pardon system. I gave him a suggestion: announce a pardon policy early on, and stick to it.”

Until now, it has appeared that the only policy informing this president’s pardoning was to avoid controversy by doing as little as possible.  Indeed, as far as we can tell, the Buzzfeed interview is the first time in six years that President Obama has acknowledged his own power to forgive, with the obvious exception of the silly turkey-pardoning ceremony at Thanksgiving. Perhaps he now realizes how shortsighted such a policy is, and that he has at last directed the Justice Department to pick up the pace in dealing with the hundreds of clemency applications awaiting his consideration from people who have long since paid their debt to society but remain burdened by legal restrictions and social stigma.