Thursday, October 28, 2010

Mercy Me -- and Justice, Please

By our count, it's been 647 days since President Obama took office, and in those 647 days, he has not granted any commutations or pardons.

That doesn't mean nothing is happening, though, because this Politico piece by Josh Gerstein highlights that President Obama recently denied requests for clemency -- 605 commutation applications and 71 pardon requests, to be specific. There are, according to the Office of the Pardon Attorney, thousands of other requests still pending, many of which were submitted during the last Bush administration. Here's FAMM's view on the denials, with some interesting factoids from clemency super-blogger P.S. Ruckman:

“We’d like to see him being a lot more generous and actively granting clemency, but it doesn’t seem to be a high priority of this administration at all,” said Molly Gill of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an organization advocating the elimination of harsh federal punishment for certain low-level crimes. “Obviously, there are a lot of political decisions that go into clemency decisions, particularly in an election year.”

According to Pardon Power, a blog that tracks clemency issues, Obama is currently the fourth-slowest president to commute or void a prisoner’s sentence. Only Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and George Washington have taken longer, according to P.S. Ruckman of Rock Valley College in Illinois.

Election year or no election year, it is mind-boggling to us that the Office of the Pardon Attorney and President Obama have yet to find even one federal prisoner worthy of a commutation or pardon.  With  mandatory minimums, limits on appeals, collateral consequences for convictions (like not being able to vote), lengthy guideline sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, and a slew of other problems and mistakes in our imperfect legal system, it begs the question:  What are you looking for, Mr. President?

Maybe there are bigger flaws in the clemency review system that need to be addressed.  Here's what we most often hear from FAMM members:  people submit pardon and commutation requests, sometimes never get so much as an acknowledgment that their applications have been received, and then wait...and wait...and wait for an answer.  Most get few or no updates from the Office of the Pardon Attorney.  Calling that office only lands people in an automated system in which they can't get a human being on the phone.  Many of our members report waiting years before their petitions are (inevitably) denied. Getting a commutation hasn't just become a long shot -- it's more akin to winning the lottery.

Until we have a perfect legal system, we will always need the President to correct individual cases of injustice. Thousands of prisoners and their families are counting on President Obama to keep reviewing cases, to urge the Office of the Pardon Attorney to recommend clemency quickly and often, and to use clemency to give everyone the benefit of systemic reforms (for example, giving the benefit of recent crack reforms to people in prison). We know the President knows the system is imperfect -- he's said as much.  Now we need action. Granting clemency isn't soft on crime; it's not just about mercy. It's about doing justice.