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Dramatic Changes to Boost Number of Clemency Petitions and Pardons

by Derek Gilna

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) on April 23rd, 2014, announced significant changes in the Office of Pardon Attorney (OPA), which processes Pardons, Clemencies, and Commutations.  The former head of the pardon office, Ronald Rogers, had been criticized for the paucity of pardons issued during President Obama’s administration (the fewest in recent history).  To date, Obama has granted only ten clemencies.

Attorney General Holder’s announcement of the new emphasis on pardons said that the OPA will now focus on applications related to the Fair Sentencing Act of 2011.  He also assured that consideration would not be limited to just drug offenders.  The Attorney General noted that the limited retroactivity offered under Fair Sentencing meant that many are still unfairly imprisoned based only upon the year of their conviction and nothing else. Thus, the stage is set for relief on a scale that should have a significant impact on the number of people in federal prison.

Prisoner-Rights attorneys are being encouraged to submit applications to the office without limitation, and Attorney General Holder has indicated a new willingness to cooperate with the defense bar to help the justice system “deliver outcomes that are fair and accessible to all.” In the words of Mr. Holder's deputy James Cole, they are seeking to “achieve… equal justice under the law.”

Deborah Leff, who will take over the position formerly held by Rogers, was praised by Cole, who said, “As acting senior counselor for Access to Justice, her fundamental mission has been to help the justice system deliver outcomes that are fair and accessible to all.”  Cole indicated a willingness to work with defense attorneys, public defenders, and pro-bono counsels who can assist the pardon, commutation, and clemency process.

Under President Obama and the old DOJ review system, virtually all applicants have been denied clemency; including one man, Clarence Aaron, who was one of the first eight individuals, recently granted clemency by Obama.  For a federal government tiring of the expense involved in long term confinement of non-violent and often chronically-ill offenders, it is action that is long overdue.

The pardon, clemency, and commutation process is exclusively granted to the President under the U.S. Constitution.  It is an expression of mercy, and intended as a check on a justice system that often seems to hand out sentences without regard to their impact, on either the individuals being incarcerated or the society being deprived of their presence.

See: “New Leader for Pardon Office Amid Clemency Overhaul,” by Todd Ruger,