One of Barack Obama’s campaign slogans as he ran for President two years ago was, “The change we need.” Unfortunately, for those in the Federal Criminal Justice System, this change has proven to be the opposite of the what they needed. To date, President Obama has not pardoned anyone, has not reduced a single Federal prisoner’s sentence, nor has he used his constitutional powers to reduce or eliminate a single person’s fines.
The generic term “clemency” refers to pardons (expungement [removal] of the conviction from a person’s record); commutation of sentence (reducing, including to “time served”, a person’s sentence), and remission (elimination) of fines owed. There is also the power to grant immunity from future Federal prosecution, such as that which President Ford granted to President Nixon, and the blanket pardon given by President Carter to draft evaders. In all cases, these only relate to violations of Federal (or military) Laws, not those of other states or localities. In the United States Constitution, this power (as concerning those with Federal or military convictions) is given exclusively to the President in Article II, section 2.
In order to assist in these decisions, a position was established in the Department of Justice known as the Office of the Pardon Attorney. The Pardon Attorney, a subordinate of the Attorney General, reviews all the applications for the various types of clemency and then makes a recommendation either way to the Associate Attorney General who in turn informs the President of the Attorney General’s recommendation.
Since 2000, the Attorney General has established policies to notify the crime victim(s) and solicit their input while a request is being investigated and considered. If a denial is recommended, and the President fails to act within 30 days, the request is denied and the file is closed.
Also, by policy “pardon” will not be considered until at least five years from the date of release from confinement, or date of conviction, whichever is later. This means that no actual “prisoners” can be pardoned. They can only receive commutation – reduction/elimination – of sentence. As well, a prisoner must not have any appeals pending when he requests an executive sentence reduction.
Even so, after receiving a total of 8,576 requests for these reductions over his 96 month total term, President George W, Bush granted only eleven of them — merely 1/10 of 1%. To be one of those lucky ones, it helps if you’re someone like Vice President Cheney’s former Chief of Staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Jr., who was spared from a single day of his 30-month federal prison sentence.
Despite receiving 2,383 sentence commutation requests in his first 17 months of office, about 150% higher than President Bush’s total his first 17 months, President Obama has granted no sentence reductions. A change Federal prisoners — with record higher sentences and good time limited to 47 or less days per year — don’t need.
On the pardon side, President Bush was even more generous. He received merely 2,498 requests over his two terms and granted 189 of them — cleaning the records of just over 7.5% of those who asked for them.
Interestingly, not a single fine was excused by either President, although certain people who received pardons or commutations might have had their fines eliminated as well.
President Obama was supported by many federal prisoners and their families, who are disproportionately African-American and saw Obama, who admitted to many improprieties of his own, including smoking crack cocaine, as their savior. When learning that so far Obama has failed to help a single applicant, many were surprised and disappointed.
“Flex,” a 29-year old African-American military prisoner housed in a federal penitentiary, when initially confronted with this reality reacted with a simple, “Wow!” But upon further consideration adopted a more pragmatic attitude. ”I’d prefer to wait until the end of his term to make a judgment,” he says.
On a personal level, he is still pursuing his appeals in court, but if he loses those, he plans to submit a clemency request. He hopes that by then President Obama will have changed direction and begun granting clemency.
Forty-five year old Doug Jennings, a white Federal Prisoner from upstate New York, also supported President Obama, specifically because “he would do what is right for prisoners, not what is popular.” Unfortunately, Obama has proved a regular disappointment — from the Executive Mandate that prisons be cooled to no more than 78 degree, even in the 115° Arizona sun, to his lack of progress on bringing some sanity into prisoner rehabilitation and release.
Mr. Jennings, a first-time Federal Prisoner, has a sentence that exceeds his lifespan and the lack of any sort of parole or other early-release possibility means that his only chance to get out is a sentence commutation.
Perhaps one day Federal Prisoners will get “the change they need,” but so far, it does not seem to be coming from the President who ran on that slogan. ¥¥