Tuesday, May 10, 2016

From Yesterday's White House Briefing

Hat tip to USA Today's Gregory Korte for sharing these snippets with us.

Q Thanks, Josh. Last week, the President granted clemency to 58 nonviolent drug offenders. At the time, you guys noted that he’s granted more commutations than the previous six Presidents combined. But when it comes to the use of his pardon power, he lags pretty far behind other modern and historical Presidents. He’s only granted 70 pardons. George W. Bush has granted 180. Bill Clinton granted nearly 400. Why is the President so reluctant to pardon people?

MR. EARNEST: Well, Byron, we've got eight months to go, so I think it's too early to draw that conclusion. The second thing I would point out is the President has been aggressively advocating for criminal justice reform legislation. In terms of the potential impact of that legislation, it would have a positive impact on many more Americans, particularly when it comes to bringing greater justice to our criminal justice system. What’s also true is this administration has worked hard to upgrade the processes that we have in place internally for considering clemency requests. That effort to make that process more efficient has resulted in changes both here at the White House and at the Department of Justice to streamline this process. The administration has also worked with outside organizations, again, to try to make this process function at a higher level. And I think the benefits of all of that work is something that we've seen in recent months with an increase in people who’ve been granted clemency. And the President is certainly hopeful that at least over the next eight months that we'll continue to benefit from that work. I think what is also true is there’s no denying that the next President of the United States will inherit a higher-functioning clemency system than the one that President Obama inherited. And that also has the potential to make a difference in the lives of Americans who are ready for a second chance.

Q But when it comes to pardons specifically, is there something the President likes better about clemency over offering a blanket pardon for a crime?

MR. EARNEST: No -- well, it's hard to answer that question, Byron, just because each of these cases are considered on a case-by-case basis. So it's hard to make grand pronouncements about the use of the granting of clemency in the form of a commutation as opposed to a pardon. But what I can tell you is, after a lot of work, we now have in place a much better system for considering these kinds of requests. There is a backlog that has built up that we're working through. But because of improvements at the Department of Justice, because of better coordination with some outside organizations, and because of a commitment on the part of this President to using this presidential authority to bring more justice to our criminal justice system, we've seen clemency granted at higher rates over the last several months. And hopefully that progress will continue. But again, none of this will ever be a replacement for the kind of criminal justice reform legislation that has bipartisan support in Congress, that would have a much broader impact in terms of making our communities safer, but also bringing greater justice to our criminal justice system.

Q One more on this. A pardon generally restores lost rights, like the right to vote or possess a firearm. The commutation does not. Does the administration’s hesitance to use the pardon power have anything to do with the fact that it would restore rights, whether firearms or voting? And broadly, does the White House believe in the right of ex-felons to get their rights back, whether to own a firearm or vote, after serving their time?

MR. EARNEST: Well, again, when it comes to issuing pardons, that is something that is done on the merits and is not done with any consideration toward voting rights. More generally, I can tell you that it is the policy of the administration that we strongly support those who have paid their debt to society being given the opportunity to get access to their constitutional rights once again. And so I know that Governor McAuliffe in Virginia has recently made some news with this effort, and that's something that, in general, the administration has been supportive of. I'll leave it there.

Q And firearms? Voting, but --

MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not aware of a position that we've taken on this question related to firearms. Mark.

Q On the question of commutations, can you tell us what the process is by which the President goes through applications? Does the pardon attorney come over, sit with him, run down -- because there are thousands of applications. Who goes through the process, weaning applicants and making the final decisions? Or is he just presented with 58 and that's how it happened last week?

MR. EARNEST: The way that this works -- and the Department of Justice can give you some more granular detail on this -- but there are attorneys at the Department of Justice that do consider applications that have been submitted through the formal process for people who are seeking clemency. And those attorneys will review the individual cases, determine whether or not they meet a set of criteria. And if they do, they are then forwarded to the White House for consideration both by the White House counsel and by the President of the United States. And that's generally how the process works. We can provide you some additional details on it.

Q But can you say if in the last batch, did the President receive more than 58 commutation prospects and then he ruled yes for some and no for others?

MR. EARNEST: I don't know the answer to that. I don't know that we're going to be, frankly, willing to disclose that much detail, because this would sort of fall into the category of advice that the President is getting from his attorneys. But let me take a look at that and see if we can give you a little bit more insight into this. But just to go back to your original question, the President is not the one who is sort of combing through the large stack of cases --

Q No, no, I get that. But what I want to know, does the counsel, White House counsel go through it first, and then sit down with the President and go through them one by one? Or does the President get a batch and goes through it himself?

MR. EARNEST: I know that the White House counsel is certainly part of that process. A lot of this can be done on paper, and so the President does take the time to review individual cases that have been recommended for clemency. I do know that.

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