ProPublica investigative reporter Dafna Linzer has released a story that should fill us all with outrage.
As many know, only President Obama can grant commutations (reductions) of sentences to federal prisoners, giving early releases to those whose rehabilitation or unjust sentence merits it. So far, though, he has only granted one commutation -- just one. People are quick to blame the president, but it may not be his fault at all, as Linzer's article shows by telling the story of Clarence Aaron. The president counts on the Office of the Pardon Attorney to review commutation requests and recommend that they be either granted or denied. But that office appears to be failing the president.
Aaron is serving life for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense. According to the article, he might have been out of prison years ago ... but for the fact that the pardon attorney's office made some inaccurate statements and omissions about his case to key White House staff.
Here are the shocking details from the article:
[T]he prosecutor's office and the sentencing judge supported an immediate commutation for Aaron.
Yet the George W. Bush administration, in its final year in office, never knew the full extent of their views, which were compiled in a confidential Justice Department review, and Aaron's application was denied, according to an examination of the case by ProPublica based on interviews with participants and internal records.
That Aaron joined the long line of rejected applicants illuminates the extraordinary, secretive powers wielded by the Office of the Pardon Attorney, the branch of the Justice Department that reviews commutation requests. Records show that Ronald Rodgers, the current pardon attorney, left out critical information in recommending that the White House deny Aaron's application. In a confidential note to a White House lawyer, Rodgers failed to accurately convey the views of the prosecutor and judge and did not disclose that they had advocated for Aaron's immediate commutation.
Kenneth Lee, the lawyer who shepherded Aaron's case on behalf of the White House, was aghast when ProPublica provided him with original statements from the judge and prosecutor to compare with Rodgers's summary. Had he read the statements at the time, Lee said, he would have urged Bush to commute Aaron's sentence.
"This case was such a close call," Lee said. "We had been asking the pardons office to reconsider it all year. We made clear we were interested in this case." ...
Rodgers offered no new recommendation to the White House and did not revise the old one. He did not pass on years of favorable prisoner reports describing Aaron's successful rehabilitation. He also made no mention of an affidavit Aaron filed with the pardons office in 2007 in which he expressed further remorse and asked "for a second chance to be a productive citizen."
Rodgers resubmitted the 2004 denial recommendation, unchanged, to the White House.
In an email the next day to Kenneth Lee, associate White House counsel, Rodgers did not disclose that [U.S. Attorney Deborah] Rhodes and the sentencing judge now agreed that Aaron should receive an immediate commutation. He told Lee that Rhodes suggested Aaron's sentence should be commuted to a term of 25 years "at some point." Rodgers also said that Rhodes believed "Aaron's commutation request is about 10 years premature."
No such language is in Rhodes's memo.
All Rodgers told the White House about Butler's views was that the judge had "no objection to commuting the sentence presently."
Rhodes would not comment on Rodgers's handling of the petition except to reiterate that she had recommended an immediate commutation for Aaron.
"I reviewed the case myself and thought it was a good one," she said.If true, these are serious misrepresentations that should have serious consequences -- and do, for the applicants who are denied.
Other high- (or rather low-) lights, according to the article: commutation requests have apparently been denied by the pardon attorney without adequate recommendations. On most cases, the president doesn't appear to get the facts and details he should have to make a good decision:
For the first 2 1/2 years under Rodgers, however, most petitions were handled by paralegals, not staff attorneys, and recommended for denial in batches, said Samuel Morison, a lawyer who spent more than a decade in the pardons office before leaving in 2010 to work for the Defense Department. He said Rodgers instituted the change when there was a significant backlog.
"The office types up a list of names, along with basic sentencing and offense information for each prisoner, and sends the list to the White House with a note that says the attached cases are meritless and should be denied," Morison said.And thousands of people may have been denied this way:
Obama has rejected nearly 3,800 commutation requests from prisoners. He has approved one. Bush commuted the sentences of 11 people, turning down nearly 7,500 applicants.FAMM has called on Congress to investigate these allegations about the pardon attorney's conduct and for the president to remove this review power from prosecutors' hands:
Congress should investigate this egregious behavior immediately with oversight hearings. The entire clemency process should be removed from the Department of Justice’s control. It is not in the president or the public’s interest to have a Pardon Attorney’s office that is captive to a prosecutorial agenda, doesn’t take clemency cases seriously, and doesn’t treat applicants fairly.