Obama again signals “expect few pardons from me”

Yesterday President Obama participated in a panel discussion of criminal justice issues moderated by Bill Keller of The Marshall Project and streamed to the public.  While the subject of clemency did not come up during the videotaped panel discussion, in a prior interview with Keller the President said that he intended to “speed up the process” of considering prisoner petitions seeking commutation of sentence.  At the same time, he again signaled that he was not similarly interested in cases involving dated convictions where a petitioner is seeking pardon to relieve collateral consequences:

Keller: While we’re talking about actions you have at your disposal, you’ve said on several occasions that there are a lot of people in prison that shouldn’t be there. A lot of people point to your record on pardons and commutations, each of which is in the double digits even though thousands of people have applied for that relief. Will we be seeing more of that between now and the end of your term, and will it be large numbers?

Obama: When I came into office and became interested in this issue, part of what we had to deal with was a legacy process where we had an understaffed and fairly constrained funnel in DOJ through which recommendations came to me. And after the first couple of rounds, I started noticing that the kinds of cases that were coming up were, you know, a sixty year old who was convicted of check kiting and was interested in getting his right to get a license for a firearm; and I said we don’t seem to be getting a pool that is broad enough to encompass all the folks who may have gotten excessive sentences — for example nonviolent drug transactions. And so what we’ve had to do is build inside the Justice Dept. greater capacity, and that has opened up the aperture: We’re now getting more applications, we’re processing them more effectively. I think what you’ve seen is a steady ramp-up through this change, and you should anticipate that over the next year and a half I’m making a big push to try to get as many of these cases reviewed, and I don’t put a either a floor or a ceiling in terms of how many commutations we might do. Public safety is uppermost on our minds, but I’m confident that there are a lot more people who qualify under the criteria we’ve set forth than I’ve already acted on, and that means we have to speed up the process.

The Justice Department has evidently interpreted the President’s earlier remarks to this effect as signaling a lack of interest in considering pardon petitions, because its processing of this part of the clemency caseload has essentially stalled since the commutation initiative began 18 months ago.  This makes all the more unfortunate the government’s firm opposition to federal courts granting relief from collateral consequences in the Brooklyn expungement cases.

In contrast, yesterday Governor Cuomo of New York announced a clemency initiative that included both pardons and commutations.  His office has created a new website inviting people to file for both kinds of relief, explaining the application process and standards.