A helpful reader brought to my attention a piece on the New York Times editorial page that proposes a complete reworking of the clemency process. Specifically, it proposes a broadly representative and non-partisan commission to make recommendations to the President about pardons and clemency.
Given my awful experience with Hamedah Hasan (Merciless), I urge President Obama and Attorney General Holder to get behind this proposal, and strongly so. They should so if only to publicly proclaim “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa” – “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” A public expiation of their manifest sins would do them and the rest of us (not to mention those who deserve mercy) a world of good. If Obama and Holder aren’t total hypocrites they will do so.
I reprint the piece in full:
On Jan. 20, 2009, in his last moments as president, George W. Bush gave Barack Obama a hard-earned bit of wisdom: whatever you do, he said, pick a pardon policy and stick with it.
It was sage advice, yet, more than five years later, President Obama has not heeded it. As a result, as one former pardon attorney has said, the clemency power is “the least respected and most misunderstood” power a president has. Yet it is granted explicitly by the Constitution as a crucial backstop to undo an unjust conviction or to temper unreasonably harsh punishments approved by lawmakers. It also can restore basic rights, like the right to vote, that many people lose upon being convicted.
In the past, presidents made good use of it, but as tough-on-crime policies became more popular, the number of grants fell dramatically. Judging by the numbers, Mr. Obama, who has, so far, granted just 62 clemency petitions, is the least merciful president in modern history.
The Obama administration took a stab at remedying the situation in April when it replaced its feckless pardon attorney and announced that it would consider granting clemency to thousands of low-level drug offenders serving what Mr. Obama called “unjust” sentences. The effort, dubbed Clemency Project 2014, was a promising start, but it has already run into significant hurdles, most recently a ruling barring hundreds of federal public defenders from assisting inmates in filing their petitions.
Even if the project succeeds, it is a one-time fix that fails to address the core reasons behind the decades-long abandonment of the presidential power of mercy. A better solution would be a complete overhaul of the clemency process. First and foremost, this means taking it out of the hands of the Justice Department, where federal prosecutors with an inevitable conflict of interest recommend the denial of virtually all applications. Instead, give it to an independent commission that makes informed recommendations directly to the president.
That proposal, which has been made before, gets new attention in an upcoming article in the University of Chicago Law Review by two law professors, Rachel Barkow and Mark Osler. Such a commission’s membership, the authors write, must be politically balanced and have a wide range of perspectives, including those of prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges, inmates, academics, officials from corrections and law enforcement, and victims’ rights advocates.
This design would give the president bipartisan support in making what is often a politically sensitive decision. Particularly in a tough-on-crime age, the risk of even one person committing another crime is enough to deter grants of clemency across the board. That is another argument for a well-financed commission, which can collect data on the results of clemency grants — data that could then be used to better inform future decisions.
In several states that already have such commissions — such as Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Alabama — clemency decisions are more transparent, more predictable, and much more frequent than in the federal system.
Mr. Obama’s failure to wield the pardon power more forcefully is all the more frustrating when considered against the backdrop of endless accusations that he is exercising too much executive authority, sometimes — his critics say — arbitrarily if not illegally. In this case, he should take advantage of a crucial power that the Constitution unreservedly grants him.
The Editorial Board, It’s Time to Overhaul Clemency, New York Times, August 18, 2014.