Clemency

  • July 17, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Margaret Love, former U.S. Pardon Attorney (1990-1997); and author of the ACS Issue Brief, “Reinvigorating the Federal Pardon Process: What the President Can Learn From the States.”

    *This post first appeared on The Crime Report

    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 the President's 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 President has now issued 89 commutations, the most since Lyndon Johnson. But even if the President ends up granting triple that number or more, it will hardly make a dent in the number of those in prison potentially eligible for relief under the announced standards of the Administration’s clemency initiative.  As Douglas Berman observed recently in his Sentencing Law and Policy blog, if the President one week were to commute as many as 80 federal drug prisoners, “this would still not be as substantively consequential for the federal prison population as the 400-plus drug defendants who will be sentenced to lengthy federal prison terms the very same week!”

    Meanwhile, the system for administering the clemency initiative is reportedly having difficulty gaining traction.  On July 4, The New York Times reported in a front page story that more than 30,000 federal prisoners have filed applications for commutation of sentence with Clemency Project 2014, the consortium of private organizations formed last year to assist the Justice Department in identifying worthy cases, but that a “cumbersome review process” has allowed only “a small fraction” of them to reach the President’s desk.

    A press release issued by Clemency Project 2014 shortly after the grants were announced conceded that only four of the 46 cases had been submitted under its auspices, and a review of the recipients of clemency reveals that several did not satisfy the Justice Department’s declared eligibility requirement of ten years already spent in prison.  Some prisoners have now expressed concern that perhaps the blessing of this Project was not the “fast track” to relief they had imagined.

    There is a growing sense of urgency among those who are responsible for organizing the clemency effort, in the Department of Justice and in the private bar.  In a recent training of volunteer counsel representing clemency applicants, Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff urged them not to delay in getting their clients’ petitions filed.

    "If there is one message I want you to take away today, it's this: Sooner is better," Leff said.

    Some federal public defender offices have been urged by Clemency Project 2014 to identify worthy applicants from among their client base and submit petitions for them prior to January 20, 2017, since it may take as much as a year for the Administration to review them.

    But even with the extraordinary resources that have been devoted to identifying prisoners who meet the Justice Department’s eligibility criteria, it seems unlikely that this task can be given more than a lick and a promise before the clock runs out on President Obama’s term.

  • August 19, 2014

    by Caroline Cox

    Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic provides historical perspective on the relationship between African Americans and the police.

    The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund reports that thirteen civil rights groups have issued a call for action and reforms in response to Ferguson.

    Max Fischer writes for Vox on police treatment of journalists in Ferguson, where the ACLU has already sued the city to stop harassing reporters and won.

    The Economist compares the likelihood of being shot by police in the United States to that in other countries, “adjusting for the smaller size of Britain’s population, British citizens are around 100 times less likely to be shot by a police officer than Americans.”

    The Editorial Board of The New York Times advocates for President Obama to more forcefully use his clemency power.  

  • May 8, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Nkechi Taifa, Senior Policy Analyst, Open Society Foundations. [American Constitution Society for Law and Policy (ACS) and the Open Society Foundations will host a forum with experts on the President’s Constitutional Pardon Power on May 10 in 2237 Rayburn House Office Building.]


    In 1974, Gerald Ford used his presidential pardon power to create an executive clemency board to oversee the petitions of 21,000 people convicted of draft-related offenses during the Vietnam War. Within a year, President Ford granted 90 percent of the petitions. The review process was a median strategy -- many desired outright amnesty for the lawbreakers while others favored imprisonment. 

    On balance, the approach by Ford establishing a pardon board allowed for individualized review of each clemency application, with options including approval, community service, or denial. A systematic process of review for this discrete class of cases helped mend a nation divided by conflicting opinions as to the legitimacy of the war and the reasonableness of sanctions for those who morally resisted it.

    Fast forward to today: Currently, there is an identifiable class of people serving egregiously lengthy sentences for crack cocaine offenses. All three branches of the U.S. government agree that these sentences are unjust, inconsistent, unfair and biased. Ironically, these people are the very same group whose harsh and discriminatory sentences inspired passage of the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), which reduced the 100:1 powder to crack ratio to 18:1. The FSA, however, applies only to new cases occurring after its passage, leaving in place the flawed sentences of those who were already serving time under the old discredited sentencing scheme. 

  • October 28, 2010
    Guest Post

    By Margaret Colgate Love, an attorney specializing in clemency and restoration of rights. Ms. Love, a former U.S. Pardon Attorney, has advised lawyers representing applicants before Gov. Paterson's pardon panel .
    On October 21, The New York Times reported that Governor David Paterson had received more than 1000 pardon requests from legal immigrants facing deportation because of old or minor state crimes. In May, Paterson (pictured) had announced the creation of a panel to consider such requests, ostensibly to inject fairness into what he described as an "embarrassingly and wrongly inflexible" system that expels immigrants without considering the possibility that deportation in a particular case might be unwise or unjust. Now, his term nearly up, the deadline for decision is fast approaching. Having stirred this pot, whatever he does is bound to be controversial.

    Governor Paterson's decision to tackle his pardoning responsibilities on a systematic basis followed on the heels of his pardon in March of Qing Hong Wu, a 29-year-old information technology executive. Wu, who had not lived in his native China since he was five years old, faced deportation because of his participation in a series of muggings as a 15-year-old. The sympathetic facts of Wu's situation had been detailed in a series of articles in The Times, and his request for mercy had garnered the support of his sentencing judge and the Manhattan District Attorney's Office. Announcing his pardon initiative at an annual gathering of state judges, Paterson declared: "In New York, we believe in rehabilitation."

    With the prospect of dozens or even hundreds of Paterson pardon grants becoming more real, The Times found advocates for immigrants euphoric: "People are being deported for indiscretions of their youth, and it's ripping families apart," one said. Another called for a replication of the pardon panel "far and wide."

    The Federation for American Immigration Reform was reportedly less thrilled: "As a general rule, we would be opposed to governors or other local officials stacking the deck so that people who could legitimately be deported get to remain in the country." FAIR spokesman Ira Mehlman complained that the governor was superseding the authority of Congress. "This is not his determination to make," he said.

  • April 14, 2010

    By Margaret Love, who now represents applicants for pardon and commutation. Love previously served as U.S. Pardon Attorney under Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. 
    At a recent oral argument in a case involving the crack cocaine sentencing guidelines, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy asked Assistant Solicitor General Leondra Kruger, "Does the Justice Department ever make recommendations that prisoners like this have their sentence commuted?"

    It was a question that stumped Ms. Kruger. The answer should have been "not very often."

    On second thought, make that "hardly ever."

    The prisoner was Percy Dillon, sentenced in 1993 to 27 years in prison for trafficking in crack cocaine. Dillon was asking the Court to decide whether the U.S. Sentencing Commission had acted properly in limiting courts' ability to modify previously-imposed sentences in the wake of Congress' 2007 reduction in the crack guidelines. If Dillon lost his case, he would spend another three years in prison.

    Dillon seemed to strike Justice Kennedy as a particularly appealing candidate for clemency: his sentencing judge had called his original sentence "unfair" and "entirely too high," and Dillon had spent 16 years compiling an impressive prison record of educational outreach to fellow inmates and at-risk youth in the community.

    Getting no answer from the government to his question about the frequency of the Justice Department's clemency recommendations, Justice Kennedy observed that there had been no sentence commutations in 2009 and only five the year before. "Does this show that something is not working in the system?"