Friday, October 31, 2014

Commutations of Sentence: An Historical Perspective

Clemency Project 2014 is a "working group" composed of "lawyers and advocates including the Federal Defenders, the American Civil Liberties Union, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Bar Association, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, as well as individuals active within those organizations" launched in January after Deputy Attorney General James Cole asked the legal profession to provide pro bono assistance to federal prisoners who would likely have received a shorter sentenced if they had been sentenced today.

As of this date: 25,426 federal prisoners have submitted applications and 4,864 applications are "currently under attorney review." 

What would 4,864 commutations look like, from an historical perspective? Because the language of clemency grants has changed over time, it is only possible to go back so far in time in data exercises. Furthermore, aggregate data gathered by the Department of Justice are erroneous, because more than one president served in the same fiscal year in the early 1900s. The best data (ours) suggests that the distribution of commutations of sentence, per year of the term, for comparable presidents, looks like this:

Click on Image (Above) to Enlarge
Thus, it appears anything much over 300 hundred commutations of sentence would put President Obama in "unprecedented" territory. 5,000 plus commutations of sentence would be off the charts. Literally. That would be something for a president slow to use the pardon power and - to date - one of the least merciful presidents in the history of the United States.

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