DOJ Promises More Commutations but Despite 9,000 Petitions Needs Help Finding People to Free

Last month President Obama, who
until that point had issued only one commutation in five
years, shortened
the sentences of eight drug offenders. Today, in a
to the New York State Bar Association, Deputy Attorney
General James Cole said more commutations are coming:

The President’s grant of commutations for these 8 individuals is
only a first step. There is more to be done, because there are
others like the eight who were granted clemency. There are more
low-level, non-violent drug offenders who remain in prison, and who
would likely have received a substantially lower sentence if
convicted of precisely the same offenses today. This is not fair,
and it harms our criminal justice system.   

To help correct this, we need to identify these individuals
and get well-prepared petitions into the Department of Justice. It
is the Department’s goal to find additional candidates, who are
similarly situated to the eight granted clemency last year, and
recommend them to the President for clemency

Cole asked the lawyers in the audience to help find commutation
candidates and prepare their petitions. The ideal candidate, he
said, is “one who has a clean record in prison, does not present a
threat to public safety, and who is facing a life or near-life
sentence that is excessive under current law.” The
Justice Department is looking for “non-violent, low-level drug
offenders who were not leaders of—nor had any significant ties
to—large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels.” It is also
interested in “petitions from first-time offenders or offenders
without an extensive criminal history.”

Cole’s talk of more commutations is surely welcome as a sign
that Obama wants to improve his abysmal
clemency record
. But it is also rather puzzling. Obama has
nearly 9,000 commutation petitions since taking office, Are we to
believe that so far just nine of them (0.1 percent) have proven to
have merit? Why is Cole scrounging around for applicants, asking
his friends in the New York Bar Association to give him a hand? Why
not dig into the enormous pile of existing petitions to find some
worthy candidates? Cole’s appeal for “effective and appropriate”
petitions that “provide a focused presentation of the information
the Department and the President need to consider” sounds like an
admission that the government cannot be bothered to read the
petitions it has already received.

About 1,500 of the clemency petitions have been officially
denied, while 1,300 or so have been “closed without presidential
action.” How serious was the review that preceded those decisions?
And what exactly is happening to the 6,000 or so remaining
petitions? Now that the president has suddenly taken an interest in
exercising his clemency powers, are government lawyers finally
getting around to looking at those files, or are all those
prisoners out of luck unless they can get help from one of Cole’s
volunteers to write a fresh petition that will receive attention
because it does not have the same disgusting odor of neglect and

Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums,
which probably could help Cole identify people who do not belong in

This speech is evidence of just how derelict the clemency
process has become in America. Once upon a time, Presidents granted
hundreds of commutations, but today they’re about as common as
winning the lottery. It’s encouraging to see the President wiping
the dust off of this tool and targeting the most unjust of our many
unjust sentencing laws: life without parole for a drug offense.
There are plenty of nonviolent, rehabilitated people who don’t
deserve to die in prison. But we need more than commutations.
Congress and this administration should end mandatory life without
parole sentences for nonviolent drug crimes.

More on life sentences for nonviolent crimes

from Hit & Run

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