Saturday, February 28, 2015

16 Percent of Federal Prison Population to Obama: Set Us Free!

On Thursday (here) we noted the record number of clemency applications that have been filed with the Office of the Pardon Attorney.

Now, the Washington Post reports that more than 35,000 inmates - or 16 percent of the federal prison population - have applied for commutations of sentence! The Post suggests this "massive influx of applications" and "a complicated review process" have "slowed" the Obama administration’s "highly touted initiative to grant clemency to nonviolent offender." But, there has never been anything swift about the Obama administration when it comes to executive clemency.

The Post reports that - upon urging by the Department of Justice - applications "are now being reviewed by more than 1,000 attorneys at 323 law firms and organizations nationwide." The idea is that this pro-bono effort will result in properly filed applications by the most worth applicants. Ideally,
Candidates for clemency under the new Justice Department criteria, released in the spring, must have served at least 10 years of their sentence, have no significant criminal history and no connection to gangs, cartels or organized crime. Applicants also must be inmates who probably would have received a “substantially lower sentence” if convicted of the same offense today. 
To date, the Clemency Project — which includes Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association and Reimer’s association of criminal defense attorneys — has sent only 14 petitions to Office of the Pardon Attorney.

Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota says there are, indeed, "thousands" of inmates worthy of clemency. He also says it would be an "injustice" if the Obama administration were to end "with them in prison." Osler says, "This is one of the major justice issues of our time.” See story here.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Obama: Clemency Applications Soar!

Click on Image (above) to Enlarge

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Criminal Disfranchisement in the U.S.

Click on Image (Above) to Enlarge
Source: WUWF, Pensacola, Florida.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Oregon: Commutation of Sentence

The Statesman's Journal reports that among resigning Democratic governor John Kitzhaber's last official acts, was a granting of a commutation of sentence. The recipient was one Sang Dao, convicted of attempted murder, unlawful use of a weapon and second-degree assault, in 2008. Authorities say:
... in February 2007, when Dao was 17, he and a friend shot at a car at Northeast 78th Avenue and Oregon Street in Portland. Three adults and a baby were in the car, but no one was hit. Then a few months later, in April 2007, Dao and his friend again were responsible for firing shots outside Kellogg Middle School at Southeast 70th Avenue and Franklin Street. One man was wounded in the leg.
It is also reported that Dao filed a formal request for commutation, but withdrew it the day that the Governor announced that he would resign.

A "spokeswoman" said the Governor gave no details or explanations for the commutation - which makes the job of "spokeswoman" a lot less complex. Dao was sentenced to join almost 15,000 other in the State's prisons for twelve and a half years. But the commutation states that service of said sentence would "not serve the best interests of the State of Oregon or of Sang Dao." OregonLive.com observes that Dao's request had "enormous support from prosecutors, police, a judge, two of Dao's victims and correctional staff who've applauded Dao's remarkable transformation." See story here.

Pennsylvania: A Contested Reprieve

Reuters reports that a prosecutor has gone to court "to try to block Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf's temporary reprieve of a convicted murderer who is set to be executed on March 4." Indeed, the prosecutor says, Governor Wolf's reprieve of Terrance Williams "is unconstitutional, illegal and should be declared null and void." Reuters reports:
In his petition filed on Wednesday, the prosecutor said Pennsylvania law restricts pardon-granting power to the Board of Pardons. "Unlike some states, Pennsylvania does not grant the governor at-will power to issue a moratorium or pardon or commute any sentence of death or punishment," the prosecutor said in a statement. By granting a reprieve, the governor effectively negated "a death sentence authorized by the General Assembly, imposed by a jury, and subject to exhaustive judicial review over a period of decades," the prosecutor said in his petition. "The constitutional role of the Governor is to execute the law, not sabotage it," he said in the petition.part of the governor's recent moratorium on the death penalty. 
Williams was sentenced to death for the 1984 murder. At the time of the offense, he was 18 years old. The Governor's office responds by noting: "Pursuant to Article 4, Section 9 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, Governor Wolf has the power to grant reprieves" - which sounds like a home run to us! See full story here.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

South Dakota: Jurassic Injustice?

Jurassic Felon?
Aberdeen News.com reports that State legislators believe the conviction of "dinosaur hunter" Peter Larson in the 1990s was an “injustice.” Indeed, the State's House of Representatives approved a resolution 67-2 which requests that President Obama pardon Mr. Larson.

Good luck with that!

Peter Larson and his team found a "nearly complete" Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton in 1990. They had permission from the rancher to dig and gave him $5,000 for the discovery.They then nicknamed the T-Rex "Sue" and transferred her to the Black Hills Institute. Here is what CNN had to say about the FBI raid and Larson's arrest:
In November 1993, a federal grand jury returned a 39-count indictment containing 153 charges against Peter Larson and five others linked to the Black Hills Institute, including Wentz and Larson's brother, Neal. The 153 charges in the indictment included fossil theft, money laundering, and false statements to government agencies. None of the charges were directly related to Sue. In fact, during the trial, the court instructed both sides and all witnesses to avoid discussing the T-Rex. In the end, [the land owner] Williams made $7.6 million from the eventual auction of Sue, who was put on display at Chicago's Field Museum -- and Peter Larson served 18 months in federal prison for customs violations unrelated to the T-Rex.
Now, one South Dakota legislator describes Larson as “an exemplary citizen.” Another says, "He’s a great guy and he just got railroaded into this.” See story here.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

National Journal Calls for "Magic"

Ron Fournier write, in the Natonal Journal, that President Obama often "whines about the limits of the modern presidency" in order to "excuse his failures. But, Fournier is "baffled" that the President has refused:
... to tackle a problem that has a bipartisan consensus and is clearly within his authority: the federal clemency process. It is utterly broken—and needs the attention of a president who cares about the issue, has the mettle to fix it, and knows how to effectively wield his constitutional powers. I don't know whether the problem is Obama's lack of heart, guts, or savvy. But his general fecklessness is inexcusable. 
In Obama's defense, he is not alone. Fournier notes that, "since the 1980s," the other presidents "have utterly failed to use their constitutional pardon power as a systemic check on federal laws and prosecutors that go too far." So, Fournier suggests:
First, remove the process from the Justice Department—which has an inherent conflict of interest—and put it in the hands of a small independent agency. Obama would need Congress's support to fund such an agency, which shouldn't be a problem given the shift against the moral and financial costs of mass incarcerations. Second, appoint a bipartisan commission with expertise in criminal law to review and track data on recidivism and related issues. 
See full editorial here.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Mysterious Revamping at the DOJ

In a recent interview with Ben Smith (BuzzFeed.com), President Obama said:
We’ve revamped the pardoning office in the Justice Department because, traditionally, we weren’t reaching a lot of nonviolent offenders who, if they received a pardon, perhaps would be in a better position to get employed.
We are aware that the President recently selected a new Pardon Attorney - to replace a nominee of President Bush, but we guess that this decision hardly constitutes a "revamping" ... in any sense of the language.

We are, of course, also aware of efforts by the Attorney General and other groups to secure commutations of sentence for those who are incarcerated and who meet certain guidelines. But the President said "pardon" not "commutations of sentence."

What "revamping" has taken place to encourage more pardons? The President's record on pardons (and commutations of sentence for that matter) is outright abysmal. It has been so for six long years. Did the revamping just take place last week? One thing is for certain, as far as revamps are concerned, this one has been as far below the radar as any! See full interview here.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Missouri: Like Charles Manson but ...

Charlie Manson
"Jeff Mizanskey and Charles Manson have something in common."

That's the snappy way an ABC News 17 (Jefferson City , Missouri) story begins. What? You ask ...
They are both serving life sentences in maximum security prison. Only Charles Manson, the notorious cult leader who's responsible for the deaths of more than a half dozen people, has had at least a dozen parole hearings. But, Jeff Mizanskey has had no parole hearings, and will get none for his non-violent marijuana offenses. 
Mizanskey was convicted for the possession and sale of marijuana in the 1980s and early 90s. Eventually, he hit his "third strike" and he is now "the only person in the state serving life in prison without parole for non-violent offenses."

Mizanskey sports a clemency application packet that can point to almost 400-thousand signatures of support. It is currently, "under review." See full story and an on camera interview here.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Saunders on Holder's Justice

Columnist Debra J. Saunders is not particularly impressed by the “Building Community Trust” roundtable discussion that was directed by Attorney General Eric Holder in Oakland this past week, a discussion which was closed to media. Saunders notes:
... it was painful to watch Holder speak in favor of “body-worn cameras” for law enforcement officers who put their lives on the line, then effectively turn off media cameras that might have recorded any real dialogue of public officials whose polished images are on the line. 
Saunders says Holder "will be remembered most for his skill at putting partisan politics first," as a person who "likes to don a mantle of social justice," but "doesn’t walk the walk."

She notes, for example, Holder "has had a chance to atone for his bad pardon recommendation of Marc Rich while deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration," He could be "pushing commutations for low-level federal inmates" that "don’t have cozy connections with Democratic heavyweight donors as the tax evader Rich had."

Instead, Holder has been "slow" when it comes to "overzealous federal law enforcement under his own jurisdiction." Yes, he "announced a clemency initiative for nonviolent low-level drug offenders who had served at least 10 years and stayed out of trouble." But the evident result has been a mere 11 commutations of sentence. Says Saunders, "That’s par for the course for Holder." She guesses that, "when there is no partisan play to be made, the outgoing attorney general is happy to watch high-stakes criminal justice matters dangle in the wind." See full editorial here

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Florida: Life Sentence

The Florida Courier has an interesting piece entitled, "Life Sentence." It being with some rather startling statistics:
More than 1.6 million Floridians – about 9 percent – cannot vote, hold office or serve on a jury, according to The Sentencing Project, a prison reform group. In most states, it’s less than two percent. Only two other states have that tough a policy. Twenty-five percent of Florida’s Black population – that’s 1 in 4 – can’t vote, even though just 17 percent of the state’s population is Black. 
In sharp contrast, in Vermont and Maine, "the currently incarcerated can vote by absentee ballot."

The piece then explains why getting such rights back, in Florida, "has become far tougher in the past four years." Governor Scott's administration has restored the rights of 1,534 nonviolent felons, but more than 11,000 have applied and are waiting. Unfortunately, the clemency board only meets four times a year and the application process requires "a five-year wait for less-serious felonies and seven years for others, along with an application form and, for each felony count, certified copies of the charging document, judgment and sentencing from the clerk of the county where the felony occurred."

Under former Gov. Crist, the Board "automatically restored the rights of nonviolent offenders who served their time." The result was 155,315 were restored in four-years Under Gov. Bush, "sentencing forms were not required of people trying to get their rights back, and there was no wait period for the less-serious felonies."

See more of this interesting report here.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Georgia: No Mercy?

Warren Lee Hill shot his 18 year old girlfriend eleven times and killed her, in 1985. There followed a life-sentence. Four years later later, in prison, Hill murdered his cellmate with a board and nails. Now he is set to be executed in Georgia.

"Human rights groups" and other say his "intellectual disability" disqualify him from execution. They note that Lee has an IQ of "approximately 70" and the "emotional capacity of a young boy." The Supreme Court, of course, has ruled that executing intellectually disabled individuals violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The hitch that the Court's decision "allows states to define intellectual disability." CNN reports that Georgia operationalizes the concept as proof of mental impairment "beyond a reasonable doubt." This is said to be the "strictest standard in any jurisdiction in the nation." According to CNN:
... Hill also has the support of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, the Georgia NAACP and former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn Carter. The victim's family and former jurors have also expressed support for mercy in Hill's case, saying they weren't given the option of life without parole when sentencing him to death. Kammer said seven doctors agree that his client is intellectually disabled, including three doctors for the state who initially evaluated Hill and said he didn't meet Georgia's standard. Kammer said those doctors have since signed an affidavit admitting they felt rushed during Hill's examination and now believe he does meet the standard for "intellectually disabled." 
Hill's case was presented before the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles which says it will "make a decision prior to the scheduled execution," which is set for 7 p.m. tonight. See story here.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Hawaii: Need for Reform?

Peter Carlisle of the Honolulu Civil Beat notes that, in one of his last acts as governor, Neil Abercrombiein "did what he could to clear the slate of a man local media dubbed the 'Manoa Home Invader' [and] that’s so troubling that it should lead to change." In addition, the otherwise "expressive politician" did not "explain his actions to the people who elected him."

Carlisle notes “Midnight pardons” are "hardly new" for presidents and governors "on their way out the door" and they "have often drawn scrutiny, criticism and embarrassment for leaders."
... Since Rodrigues was already out of prison, why does a pardon matter? A felon loses certain rights, including the ability to vote, serve on a jury, run for office and carry a gun. Someone who is pardoned gets most of those rights back, although the right to carry a gun must be specified in the pardon. ... But a pardon does not erase a conviction, which remains on the criminal’s record and must be disclosed when information about past criminal activity is required. A pardon doesn’t say someone is innocent; it is that he is forgiven. A pardon from a governor surely makes life easier on a convicted felon.
The piece goes on to argue that the "main problem" with the pardon process is that "there are few rules, procedures or regulations that frame it." Thus, Carlisle suggests that governors should "promise" to " complete their pardons by a certain date and include a written justification before a pardon is formalized."  As for the written explanations, he elaborates:
Such justifications should include factual information, reasoning, policy considerations and other factors that the governor deems relevant to the pardon being prepared. Here is why: A written decision, published in advance, will allow for public scrutiny and accountability of the governor’s decision to pardon a convicted criminal. This process might even allow the governor to escape shadows of suspicion, whether influence peddling or ignorance of details about a convicted criminal’s past that should be weighed before pardoning them. This could spare governors and presidents a great deal of embarrassment and, more importantly, make the process healthier. 
Another suggestion: "if a governor knows that he or she won’t run for re-election, this should be done several months — perhaps three to six — before the end of the gubernatorial term."  See full editorial here.

Times: Room for Debate (on Pardons)

This week's "Room for Debate" section in the New York Times focuses on the question of pardons. Among the editorials one can find there are:

* P.S. Ruckman, Jr. There Are Many Reasons to Show Mercy

* William Otis., Pardons Shouldn't Take the Place of Law and Courts

* Julie Stewart, The Pardon Process is Inherently Unfair

* Sam Morison, Pardons Are Rooted in U.S. History and the Constitution

* Amy R. Povah, Give Mothers Priority

* Glenn E. Martin, One Remedy for Our Excessively Punitive System

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Vermont: Three Pardons

The Times Argus reports Gov. Peter Shumlin has granted pardons to three women who have "atoned for their mistakes." One plead guilty to violation of a restraining order in 2001, when she was only 18 years old. Another plead guilty to a domestic assault on her own mother in 2002 (the mother supported the clemency application). The third plead guilty to "a number of nonviolent felonies and misdemeanors" related to substance abuse and addiction in the late 1990s.

The Governor said he was "proud" to pardon all three ...
"... who have all worked very hard to overcome obstacles in their lives and mistakes made in their pasts ... All three have shown a commitment to helping others and to making a better life for themselves and their family ... Past mistakes do not define a person’s future, and I hope these three will serve as an inspiration for others looking to turn their lives around.” 
See story here.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Missouri: Law School Student Schools Frank Bruni

A third-year law student, Erica J. Mazzotti, has a fine editorial in the St. Louis Dispatch re clemency. She notes that, aside from 9 pardons Governor Nixon granted last month, he has granted only one other request for clemency since he took office in 2009.

Mazzotti notes that the "longstanding tradition" of pardoning "is not just an act of mercy." It entails a "gubernatorial responsibility" to:
... correct injustices within the criminal justice system, including sentences that are significantly disproportionate between genders, offenders who are treated as criminals when in reality they themselves are victims of abuse, and rehabilitated inmates who spend decades incarcerated when they pose no societal threat. 
[Memo to Frank Bruni: Clue up!] Mazzotti notes the Community Coalition for Clemency, represents over a dozen women who "are victims of serious domestic and/or sexual abuse, had no prior history of violent crime, and in some cases received harsher sentences than similarly situated males."

She also discusses a Sentencing Project, study entitled, "Fewer Prisoners, Less Crime: A Tale of Three States” which found that "during the periods of decarceration in New York, New Jersey and California, violent crime rates fell at a greater rate in those three states compared to nationwide rates." Unfortunately, she says, Missouri’s rate of incarceration "continues to rise and as of 2013 is 32 percent higher than the national average."  See full editorial here.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Egypt: 584 Prisoners to be Pardoned

It is reported that President Sisi set "a few criteria" but left the actual "selection" of prisoner to be pardoned in the hands of the interior ministry.  Consequently, Egyptian authorities have announced that 584 prisoners will be released. The decree applies to 1) those who have served 15 years of a life sentence and 2) prisoners who have sentenced to at least 6 months and have served at least half their sentence.

The decree does not apply to 1) those convicted of felonies and misdemeanours that harm the government internally or externally 2) those involved with explosives, weapons and ammunition, drugs, illegal profiteering, and bribes, forgery and obstructing traffic.

It is also said that the pardons were an "attempt" to "keep the public happy on the anniversary of the January 25th revolution. See full story here.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Montana: Pardon Power to the Governor?

The Montana Standard reports Rep. Margie McDonald (D-Billings) has introduced House Bill 43A " "to allow Montana's governor to grant clemency to prisoners even if the state parole board recommends against it." It is reported that the governor "would assume final authority over clemency requests" and be able to "waive fines, lessen a sentence or pardon someone. "

The State's parole board "drew increased scrutiny" when Gov. Steve Bullock supported a commutation of the life sentence of Barry Beach, but the board "declined to forward a clemency recommendation." See story here.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Bruni: Creative, But Still Wrong

We have already commented on Frank Bruni's commentary on Mark Wahlberg's clemency application (see posts here), but Bruni is doubling down on his wrong-headed analysis and his downward slide is something to see!

Bruni proudly wields a colorless anecdote re Wahlberg's use of eye glasses which he (Bruni), evidently, believes sheds profound light on the substantive merit of Wahlberg's pardon application. After spending a couple of "days" with Wahlberg, years ago, Bruni has concluded Wahlberg exhibited a pattern of bad behavior, almost four decades ago, when he was 16-years old, and when he committed an offense so heinous that he served only 45 days in prison.

In the Morning Joe clip (below), Bruni says Wahlberg's argument for pardon is that, well, "he was 16 at the time." And that is when it becomes perfectly obvious that, for whatever reason, Mr. Bruni just can't think clearly, or very fairly, about this case.


Bruni admits "everyone" says Wahberg is a "great person to work with and an outstanding guy" and that he "probably is a different man." Yes, "probably" is as far as Bruni is willing to wander away from the comfort of his ginormous blind spot. But he then tosses those critical reference points (at least for those who believe in - and are truly interested in - rehabilitation) like a classically over-zealous prosecutor forsaking a handful of frivolous charges in plea bargain negotiations with an indigent defendant. Notably, to date, Bruni and his ilk can't find a single person - not even an anonymous person - to slam Wahlberg's character and reputation ... in the current decade ! Dear Reader, do you realize how hard it is these days to not be able to find an anonymous slanderer?!

For centuries, presidents and governors have considered community service and social good works in clemency decision making, without Bruni's permission and insight:
It's easy to give back money when you make that much money and if we start factoring in financial contributions into pardons, that's just income inequality transferred into criminal justice. I don't think we need to do that. 
The giant ball of flame barrels through a field of straw men. It may be easy to give, but many don't.  As long as we are waxing sociological, "ease" is certainly a relative notion. "Financial contributions" here means donations to organizations that do things like provide counselling and programs to high risk youth. And, of course, the "factoring" consideration would pack a lot of serious journalistic punch were "financial contributions" required. But they are not. They are simply fairly considered with a host of whatever other arguments an applicant can make for penitence, rehabilitation, social responsibility and integration back into society as a law-abiding and productive citizen. 

Presidents have granted pardons to farmers, for all sorts of crimes, that landed then in federal prison, for much longer periods of time, so they could return to their fields for harvest. A President, Bruni would keep them in over-crowded, expensive prisons, protecting himself from 1) any accusation of agricultural bias and 2) any possible negative interpretation of his decision-making concocted by the worst, most uninformed. Signals are more important to Bruni than the boring, raw merits of a pardon application - like the fact that one of the victims thinks Wahlberg should be pardoned. Boring, irrelevant stuff. Admittedly, it appears we have a lot of governors like Bruni!

Bruni says we can't give Wahlberg a pardon ... not because the crime was so horrible, not because the application is weak, or horribly flawed, not because Wahlberg hasn't changed, not because he does not deserve a pardon ... but "because we give so few of them." Brilliant. This is the exact bone-headed argument that Scott Walker uses to justify his "policy" of granting no pardons at all. As he puts it, if he does justice in one case, others will demand the same. God forbid there would be a break out of justice on Walker's (or President Bruni's) watch. 

Then, the coup de grace. Bruni says - sounding really authoritative, informed - "The whole point of pardons is to remove restrictions that keep people from rebuilding productive lives." Because such restrictions have had "almost no effect" on Wahlberg, he is (in Bruni's mind) ineligible for clemency. Pure unadulterated, inexcusable nonsense. He could hardly be more wrong. One could write a doctoral dissertation on the categories and levels of error therein.

Bruni - at this point - is so far in over his head he can only resort to re-convening the court now closed for almost four decades, serving as judge and jury and accusing Wahberg of committing a "vicious racial hate crime." A great sound bite for a six-minute segment and drive -by viewers with little appetite for the yawns prompted by rigorous discussions of fairness and justice. Bruni's "arguments" are the rough equivalent of a football player on the way to a sure touchdown, and dropping the ball before actually crossing the goal line, in an attempt to look really cool, impressive. Epic fail. 

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