Is the federal clemency system racially biased? It's time for the Department of Justice to police its own Office of the Pardon Attorney and get some answers, argues FAMM President Julie Stewart over at The Crime Report in this op-ed today.
A recent panel discussion at the National Press Club, sponsored by Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) discussed allegations of corruption at the little-known Office of the Pardon Attorney (OPA) within the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).Racial disparities in pardon grants are only one hair-raising allegation brought against the OPA in recent months, yet DOJ has publicly done and said nothing to fix that broken office. This should be a top-priority area of concern for DOJ, partly because it has nothing to do with partisanship -- as Julie notes, both Republican and Democratic presidents have been frustrated and thwarted by OPA's inability or refusal to produce favorable recommendations on commutation and pardon requests.
Among the panelists was Dafna Linzer, the Pro Publica reporter whose dogged determination resulted in two front-page Washington Post stories on the OPA, including one that concluded that whites are four times as likely as non-whites to receive a presidential pardon, even when the circumstances of their crimes are roughly the same.
Seven months have passed since Ms. Linzer’s first expose was published. Yet neither the OPA nor the DOJ has responded publicly to its serious allegations of racial bias. When asked at FAMM’s briefing if she was surprised by DOJ’s public silence, Ms. Linzer observed that if the type of racial discrimination produced by the current pardon process were found at the state or local government level, DOJ would probably get involved and initiate an investigation.
“Yet here,” she said, “we have a case of contemporary race disparity happening within the Justice Department itself.”
It’s time to get some answers.
The clemency power belongs solely to the President of the United States. If Presidents Bush and Obama believed every federal sentence handed down under their watch was the perfect length and that no ex-offender who served his time deserved a second chance, that would be their right. We know from Ms. Linzer’s reporting, however, that President Bush believed otherwise and sought to extend mercy to more offenders.
We also know that he ignored the OPA in a couple of cases and granted clemency when the office hadn’t recommended it. I refuse to believe that President Obama, who criticized mandatory minimum sentences during the 2008 campaign and signed into law the Fair Sentencing Act to reduce sentences for crack cocaine offenses, is any less compassionate.
The OPA’s only job is to assist the president by providing him with the unbiased information he needs to fulfill his constitutional clemency power fully and fairly.
It is clear that the OPA is failing miserably. Since the OPA (and DOJ) will not even respond publicly to serious allegations of incompetence and corruption, Congress must investigate.