Thursday, October 1, 2015

President Obama and the Power of Mercy

Until recently, President Obama was the least merciful president of modern times. In the past year, he has done more — his totals now stand at 89 sentence commutations and 64 pardons. (A commutation shortens or ends a sentence being served, while a pardon erases the conviction and restores any rights lost as a result.) This is a step in the right direction, but there are many thousands more in prison who are deserving of executive clemency.

The Office of the Pardon Attorney, a division in the Justice Department, has the job of sifting through tens of thousands of clemency petitions. Last year, the department announced an initiative called Clemency Project 2014, a coalition of private and criminal defense lawyers who have donated their time to process requests from prisoners around the country.
The idea was to zero in on the thousands of people, disproportionately young men of color, who are serving absurdly long sentences for drug crimes. Unfortunately, the effort has gone almost nowhere. Despite the volunteers’ best efforts, they have run into countless obstacles, including long delays in getting access to the sentencing and prison records required to file clemency petitions in the first place.
Two lessons arise from this mess. One is that this important job should not be farmed out to nongovernment lawyers, however hard-working and well meaning they are. More fundamentally, the clemency process should be removed from the Justice Department entirely.
The idea has been proposed before, but it is gaining new and notable supporters, including Margaret Love, who served as pardon attorney under Presidents Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush, and who until recently defended the department’s role. In a new law review article, however, she says the department is “determinedly and irreconcilably hostile” to clemency.


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