Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Times: On Pardons and Access

Charlies Savage of the New York Times has written an article on the role of access in attaining federal executive clemency. Savage documents a problem which we see as the very simple result of a logical causal chain. The Office of the Pardon Attorney is understaffed and without the resources it needs to do its job well. Combine that with the fact that modern presidents have increasingly neglected the use of the pardon power and the result is a tremendous backlog and, if anything, a tendency to err on the side of rejecting/not acting on applications.

The net effect? A perception that applications are not likely to get fair consideration in "the process." And, there is a reasonable perception that applications have less than the proverbial snowball's chance of success. In that environment, applicants who have the resources will do whatever they can to end-round the process. It makes perfect sense to do so. Savage writes this about the case of Reed R. Prior:

In December 2007, the names of about 700 federal prisoners seeking commutations reached President Bush’s desk. He rejected all but one. Among the disappointed petitioners was Reed R. Prior, an Iowa man serving a life sentence for a drug conviction whose application had been pending for nearly five years.

Last month, Mr. Prior filed a new application with the Justice Department. Not much had changed. But this time, with help from the Iowa governor, Mr. Prior’s lawyer secured a face-to-face meeting with the White House counsel, Fred F. Fielding. A week later, Mr. Bush commuted Mr. Prior’s sentence.

... Going through the Justice Department did not work for Mr. Prior, despite widespread support. His judge said in an interview that he “fully supported” a commutation for the 1996 conviction for methamphetamine possession with intent to distribute. He said the sentence, required by mandatory guidelines, was unjust in that case. The prosecutor and prominent Iowa politicians supported Mr. Prior, too.

Savage also discusses the cases of Alan S. Maiss (whose application - unlike most - was processed in about a year) and Charlie Winters and Isaac R. Toussie.

To be sure, access to power has always been limited and biased. But we submit that, if the Office of the Pardon Attorney were staffed and resourced more responsibly, and presidents granted more pardons, on a regular basis, then there would be a much better chance that applicants would also perceive that they would be given fair consideration in the process. Until then, we are headed right back to the good old days of women renting black dresses and crying babies, throwing themselves at presidents and advocating for pardons. See full article here.

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