Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Administration Sends Mixed Signals on Sentencing, Mercy

The Hill reports President Obama "will meet Wednesday morning with members of the U.S. Sentencing Commission" as the administration "pushes forward with a review of the presidential clemency system that could lead to the release of thousands of prisoners."

On Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder said the administration was "moving swiftly to put this clemency project into effect" by establishing "an extensive screening mechanism" and beginning the process of "engaging assistance from pro bono attorneys." He also says the administration will "continue to consult with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and trial judge who handled each original case - so we can evaluate clemency applications in the appropriate context."

But The Hill notes additional commentary that confuses the sharp ear. For example:
The White House has said that while it will press forward with its clemency review, it prefers that those "serving unfairly long sentences under outdated guidelines" be freed through congressional action, rather than presidential decree. "The clemency process is not an appropriate vehicle to address that injustice in a comprehensive way," Carney said. "That should be done through bipartisan legislation like the measures currently working their way through Congress. And as you know, this is an issue on which there is a bipartisan coalition that believes actions needs to be taken, and there are measures in Congress that reflect that."
Indeed, there may very well be a preference for congressional action, so responsibility and potential criticism (both fair and unfair) can be effectively diluted via dispersion. But, we respectfully disagree with the notion that clemency is, in any sense of the language, an inappropriate tool to remedy injustices. To the contrary, the clemency power is an entirely appropriate device to address long-standing error and injustice resulting from the legislative process. It is a check and balance explicitly provided to the executive branch, by the Constitution, for such purposes.

Yes, the president should use that power cautiously, and thoughtfully, but without apology. Congress has had its way, on the issue of mandatory sentencing, for more than three decades, and the results have, at least arguably, been nothing short of disastrous. See story here.

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