On Commutations, DOJ Blames Volunteer Lawyers for Failing to Do Its Job

A big backlog of prisoners seeking shorter sentences has gotten a lot bigger.


ABC News

At the beginning of 2014, when the Justice Department asked private attorneys for help in locating worthy candidates for commutation, it was already sitting on thousands of applications from federal prisoners seeking shorter sentences. Two years later, Reuters reports, about 9,000 petitions are pending at the DOJ, and another 9,000 still need to be reviewed by the network of lawyers who volunteered to help vet applicants. So far the organization, known as Clemency Project 2014, has been contacted by 34,000 prisoners and has forwarded petitions from only 300 or so, 31 of whom have received commutations.

While the raw number of commutations granted by Obama, 187, looks impressive, it represents less than 1 percent of the petitions he has received, compared to almost 7 percent for Richard Nixon, 4 percent for Gerald Ford, and almost 3 percent for Jimmy Carter. Measured by this rate, clemency expert P.S. Ruckman Jr. observes, Obama looks about as good as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, although better than either of the Bushes.

What happened? In 2014 Obama administration officials were envisioning "thousands" of commutations by the end of the president's second term. After a very slow start in his first term, when he shortened just one sentence, Obama did pick up the pace, but not nearly enough to hit that target.

The DOJ is blaming the Clemency Project: "A senior DOJ official told Reuters it is calling on the lawyers' group…to simply hand over the outstanding cases without further vetting, saying it is not working fast enough." Yet Cynthia Roseberry, project manager at the lawyers' network, "said the group was unaware of any request from the Justice Department to hand over the pending applications."

One reason the Clemency Project has been moving so slowly is that it wanted to make sure the applicants it recommended met the DOJ's excessively picky criteria, which require ascertaining whether a prisoner would have received a shorter sentence under current law, whether he has "a significant criminal history," whether he has "demonstrated good conduct in prison," and whether he has "significant ties to large-scale criminal organizations, gangs or cartels." Applicants are also supposed to be low-level, nonviolent offenders who have served at least 10 years.

"There are a lot of gray areas," Roseberry told Reuters.  "We've got to unpack each of these applicants to see specifically what factors affect them…and so that takes a little more time." On average, she estimates, each case takes about a month for a lawyer to review. The project has rejected some 25,000 applicants for failing to meet the DOJ criteria.

Not only did the DOJ make the task of vetting applicants unnecessarily difficult; it is now blaming volunteers for failing to do its job. "It's unfair to criticize the volunteer group that you asked to help," observes NYU law professor Rachel Barkow. The Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney had a big backlog long before the Clemency Project existed, and now it has an even bigger backlog. The fundamental problem is not that volunteer lawyers are moving too slowly but that the DOJ has abdicated its responsibility to review clemency petitions. 

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  1. Obama’s an expert in blaming other people for his own failings.

    1. You know who else blamed others for his own failings?

      1. Kim Jong Numero Un?

        1. Five holes in one…. in one round!

          /mike drop

      2. Johnny Manziel? Oh, sorry – O.J. Simpson! Is it O.J.?

    2. Funny enough, Obama could easily become a CEO of a major crony capitalist multinational. Leadership is blaming the idiots beneath you.

    3. Are we sure he’s not a milennial? He reminds me of a lot of my friends: everything is another person’s fault and life isn’t fair.

  2. What happened? In 2014 Obama administration officials were envisioning “thousands” of commutations by the end of the president’s second term.

    He got his accolades.

    1. Nobel. Peace. Prize….

      /mike drop

    2. Nobel. Peace. Prize.

      Book it.

    3. Nobel. Peace. Prize.

      Take it to the bank and cash it in.

    4. Nobel. Peace. Prize….

      /Dons sunglasses dramatically

      ……Yeeeeooooooow! ‘and I get on my knees and pray….. …. …We don’t get fooled again!’

  3. Hey, Tim Cook. Yeah, I’m gonna need ya to come in this weekend. When you’re done with that backdoor, why don’t ya just go and make me a couple robot lawyers. Thanks, Buddy.

  4. Here’s your solution:

    Vote for me for President. As President, I will issue blanket pardons for all “consensual crimes”. This includes any drug offenses as well as prostitution, obscenity, and anything else I can think of that has no business being in the criminal code.

    I will make a big speech about it too. People like speeches. I will tell all the people that “yes, I am fully aware that some of the people I’m turning lose are bad folk. And some of them will break the law. Some might even kill or rape someone. But it is still wrong to keep them in jail for these crimes, so I’m turning them lose and expunging their record.”

    I’ll issue blanket pardons not only at the federal level, but at the state level too. Fuck ’em. Let them try and sort it out after I issue the stupid pardons. I won’t have any of these other stupid caveats. I’ll order their immediate release, and call up the guard to make it happen if I have to. I’ll push it as far as I can until they finish the impeachment proceedings. I figure that’ll take a good six months, so facts on the ground will already be created.

    So vote Cyto. It will be epically entertaining. And you might get to watch a sitting President get lynched on the south lawn, so there’s that too.

    1. I was going to vote for Gary Johnson, but the cyto platform does have a certain madness to it…

    2. I have to be honest. If I was going to focus on a single issue that would get me lynched on the south lawn, it wouldn’t be for that, but bravo sir.

  5. And the real story is in the excessive red-tape. Perpetrated by?

  6. If only Comrade Obama knew of this injustice!

    1. Don’t worry, he’ll find out as soon as he reads about it in the newspaper.

      1. pravdassociated press?

  7. States need to also look at their sentencing practices. Let me give you just one example why…Lenny Singleton.
    Lenny committed 8 “grab & dash” robberies in a 7 day period while high on alcohol & crack. He did not have a gun. He did not murder anyone. In fact, he didn’t even physically injure anyone & not one person filed as a “victim.” He stole a total of less than $550 & these were his first felonies. He earned a college degree & served in our Navy before he allowed his addiction to destroy his life.

    What he got was 2 Life Sentences + 100 years. The judge, without any explanation to the courtroom, sentenced Lenny to more time than rapists, child molesters, or murderers. Lenny, while incarcerated, works every business day, lives in the Honor’s Dorm, takes every class for self-improvement, and in his spare time, has co-authored a book called, “Love Conquers All.” During the entire 20+ years he has been in prison so far he has not received a single infraction for anything – rare for lifers.

    American taxpayers will pay well over a million dollars to keep Lenny in prison for the rest of his life – for stealing less than than $550 in crimes where no one was physically injured? Justice will not have been served if Lenny dies in prison. Now that you have just one example, multiple that by literally thousands of cases all across the US to get the bigger picture.

    Please learn more and sign Lenny’s petition at

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