Is a Major, Merciful Change in Presidential Pardon Policy Brewing?


Will we stop using Obama's campaign motto ironically or sarcastically for once?
credit: Tracy Russo / photo on flickr

Jacob Sullum has written extensively about President Barack Obama's reputation for having very little mercy toward federal prisoners, hardly touching his executive authority to grant clemency. Last week, the president provided clemency toward a drug offender who had been, due to a mistake, sentenced to a longer sentence term than federal sentencing guidelines dictated. That is to say, the president's latest act of mercy was actually fixing a paperwork mistake.

But a piece by Liz Goodwin on Yahoo News today indicates a major shift may be coming. If the anonymous (of course) administration source talking to Goodwin is telling the truth, it could be big:

Now, in his final years in office, Obama … wants to use his previously dormant pardon power as part of a larger strategy to restore fairness to the criminal-justice system. A senior administration official tells Yahoo News the president could grant clemency to "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of people locked up for nonviolent drug crimes by the time he leaves office—a stunning number that hasn't been seen since Gerald Ford extended amnesty to Vietnam draft dodgers in the 1970s.

The scope of the new clemency initiative is so large that administration officials are preparing a series of personnel and process changes to help them manage the influx of petitions they expect Obama to approve.  Among the changes is reforming the recently censured office within the Justice Department responsible for processing pardon petitions. Yahoo News has learned that the pardon attorney, Ronald Rodgers, who was criticized in a 2012 Internal watchdog report for mishandling a high-profile clemency petition, is likely to step down as part of that overhaul. Additional procedures for handling large numbers of clemency petitions could be announced as soon as this week, a senior administration official said, though it could take longer.

Sources for Goodwin's story partly lay the blame for Obama's terrible record for pardons on the Office of the Pardon Attorney, part of the Department of Justice:

The pardon attorney, former military judge Ronald Rodgers, sends his recommendations of whether or not to grant the petitions to the Deputy Attorney General's office, which then sends them on to the White House. The pardon attorney was recommending that the president deny nearly every single petition for a pardon or a reduced sentence, according to one senior official in the Obama administration.

But even though the president was almost certainly aware that the pardon process was deeply flawed, he took no steps to fix it. In 2009, Obama's top lawyer, Gregory Craig, drafted a proposal urging a more aggressive use of the presidential pardon and clemency power, and calling the current system broken. One of Craig's recommendations was to take the pardon attorney's office out of the Department of Justice entirely, so that the people vetting clemency petitions were not so close to the system that put prisoners away in the first place.

"I was of the belief that the current system for making pardon decisions was broken and it needed to be reformed," Craig said. His suggested reforms weren't implemented, and he left the White House that year.

Read the full, thorough accounting of the disparity between the administration's stated positions and what was actually going on in the Office of the Pardon Attorney here.

Attorney General Eric Holder essentially verified Goodwin's story (the outcome, if not the internal conflcit) later in the day by announcing an "expanded program" that will lead to additional requests for clemency. But will more drug war prisoners actually get pardons?

NEXT: A Moral Case Against the Ex-Im Bank, Once Called "a Fund for Corporate Welfare" by Obama

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  1. What I’d like to see:

    “I’ll pardon anyone in the federal system whose only crime is a non-violent drug offense.”

    What we’re more likely to see:

    A handful of pardons, stingily handed out, so Obama looks not quite as bad as at least one other president.

    1. This.

      And this TSA-study-like business of having “a senior administration official” “hint at” “the possibility of” “a change in” “policy” is bullshit.

      Just *do* it already or STFU.

      1. He’s still trying to figure out how to use it to his political advantage. It’s not like he’s trying to do the right thing here.

        1. Yes, I understand. That makes it stick in my craw all the more. 8-(

    2. Agreed. And doing it on his first day in office rather than his last day would’ve showed some real resolve, instead of having to be somewhat embarrassed by it.

  2. How many times were we promised some variant of “seriously, he’s going to do the liberaltarian thing after the election”?

    All that is missing is Marc Ambinder.

    1. Kick the football, Charlie Brown.

  3. It would be great if Obama decided that he wanted to have his legacy be “the president who pardoned a ton of non-violent offenders” or something like that. Let his egomania help some people for a change. But as always with him, I’m ultra-skeptical. He’s such a narcissistic machine politician crony scumbag that I just can’t see him doing anything that isn’t directly related to his own self-aggrandizement or benefiting his cronies. He’s only going to be the president for a few more years; he has to milk it for himself and his buddies for as much as he can.

    1. My guess is he just wants black people to show up and vote in November. You watch, this will be a big thing until right after the midterms.

  4. “Sources for Goodwin’s story partly lay the blame for Obama’s terrible record for pardons on the Office of the Pardon Attorney, part of the Department of Justice:”

    Just have Valerie whateverhernameis send a Friday afternoon email; it’s good enough for other royal decrees.

    1. Yeah, totally not Obama’s fault that an employee who works for him and can be fired and replaced at will did a lousy job for, what, 5+ years and counting, and a bunch of people tried their damndest to point out this dismal track record and advocated he do something.

      Apparently, “evolving” to a less bad position is a time consuming process.

      1. It’s the boyars – they’re preventing the people’s pleas for justice from reaching the Tsar!

  5. You Know Who Else Engaged in Mass Pardons?

    1. Peter North?

      1. Oh… Pardons, with a P… Got it.

  6. I’ll believe it when I see it.

    If I do see it, I will give full respect to the President for doing it.

    I don’t expect to see it happen.

  7. The article damages its credibility with stuff like:

    “As a candidate and civil rights law professor, President Barack Obama had spoken out about the need to reform the criminal-justice system, and *clearly felt passionately* about entrenched racial biases that resulted in people being treated unfairly by the courts based solely on the color of their skin.” [emphasis added]

    He can’t have been *too* passionate if he waited until the end of his first term to even start getting around to thinking about clemency issues – if he was serious about the racism thing, he would have been granting clemency to numerous black people whom he deemed the victims of racism.

    I suspect that this article is a trial balloon – if the response is favorable or at least not too harsh, then he will Create A Legacy by signing lots of clemency decrees. If the cable hosts and bloggers start raising the alarm about “OMG turning meth dealers loose on the streets,” then he will drop the whole idea and “senior officials” will plant stories about how Obama would *love* to be merciful, but the Teathuglicans won’t let him.

    If he goes ahead with his clemency plans, I suppose I will have to assume the position of defending him against some of the more rabid right-wingers. Thankfully, there are plenty of people on the right who would cheer on, not hamper, clemency.

    1. Create A Legacy by signing lots of clemency decrees

      Where “lots of” = “one more than W did”.

      1. IF this were important, why did he wait so long?

        1. Because he doesn’t need to beat W’s record until his last day in office.

  8. Hiland Mountain Correctional Facility in Eagle River Alaska was 2 for 2 a few weeks ago.…..soner.html Note she was medically cleared after blowing a .325.

    1. Unfortunately this ain’t an isolated incident. Sad story.

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