By sarahchrist77708548, Apr 4 2016 03:49PM
Despite commuting on wednesday the sentences of 61 federal prisoners convicted of drug and firearm crimes — bringing his total number of commutations to 248, more than that of his six predecessors combined — he is far from accomplishing the ambitious goals his administration publicly set out two years ago.
In the spring of 2014, the Obama administration announced an initiative to consider granting clemency to thousands of federal prisoners serving what Mr. Obama called “unjust” sentences for low-level drug crimes. Federal prisoners were notified of the project, and more than 30,000 responded by submitting surveys to begin the process.
Despite the relatively high number of commutations that Mr. Obama has now granted, there are still more than 9,000 pending commutation cases, many of the sort singled out in the 2014 initiative as potentially worthy. So why has the president acted on so few?
Typically, a reluctance to exercise the pardon power is a result of political timidity. But in this case, the Obama administration already took the political risk two years ago when it announced the clemency initiatPresident Obama met with people who have received commutations, including Ramona Brant, left, in Washington, D.C., yesterday. Credit Zach Gibson/The New York Times
When the pardon attorney, Deborah Leff, resigned in January, she complained in her letter of resignation that meritorious clemency cases had been thwarted by those above her. She noted in particular that some of her own recommendations had been overruled by the deputy attorney general, Sally Quillian Yates.
It is not an incidental fact that Ms. Yates is a career prosecutor. When the Department of Justice reviews clemency cases, the opinions of prosecutors in the district of conviction are solicited and given considerable weight. But prosecutors are the wrong people for the task of vetting clemency cases. I was a federal prosecutor for five years. In that job, deciding someone’s fate is a necessary but difficult emotional commitment. The prospect of being wrong — and a clemency initiative like Mr. Obama’s can feel like a judgment that prosecutors were wrong — can be a lot to bear. We should not be surprised if, when it comes to Mr. Obama’s clemency initiative, prosecutors systematically resist what is, in effect, an indictment of their work.
President Obama can and should fix this problem with a simple executive order that places the Office of the Pardon Attorney in the White House, rather than at the bottom of the institutional structure at the Department of Justice. An empowered pardon attorney (or perhaps a pardon board, as we find in many states) would then report directly to the president. That would allow an independent but thorough review of clemency petitions free from the influence of career prosecutors.
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In addition, by reducing the number of levels of review, the president could focus more effectively on those cases that may matter most to him — for example, the hundreds of prisoners, nearly all of them black, who are serving excessively long terms under crack-cocaine laws that were subsequently reformed with the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.
If he is going to make good on his administration’s promise from 2014, Mr. Obama needs to take action soon. And he should: The value of mercy is profound and lasting, as the coin in my pocket suggests.
It may seem odd that I carry around with me an ancient Roman artifact, but the truth is that it cost only $28 on eBay. It’s not a fake; it just isn’t that rare. So many were minted that the supply remains large, even now. It is a striking image: millions of Roman subjects carrying around with them the name of the goddess of clemency.
Her spirit, and that of the Constitution, should be remembered now. President Obama still has time to honor his promise.