As Sarah Jones wrote on Monday, the clemency process reflects one of the structural problems inherent in criminal justice. Simply put, if you are white and rich, the system is far kinder to you than if you are black and poor. Add to that a Bush appointed Pardons Attorney with his own agenda, one can only applaud President Obama for his desire to establish fair criteria.
On Wednesday, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole announced that Debra Leff will replace outgoing Pardons Attorney Ronald L. Rodgers, and he elaborated on the plans to reform the clemency process in prepared remarks.
This program is building on the “Smart on Crime” initiative the Attorney General launched last year – a necessary step because our prisons are over populated. After outlining earlier steps by the president to address sentencing disparities, Cole elaborated on the six elements of the new clemency criteria.
- inmates who are currently serving a federal sentence in prison and, by operation of law, likely would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense today.
- Are non-violent, low-level offenders without significant ties to large-scale criminal organizations, gangs, or cartels
- Have served at least 10 years of their sentence
- Do not have a significant criminal history
- Have demonstrated good conduct in prison; and (6) have no history of violence prior to or during their current term of imprisonment.
Cole also announced that next week, the Bureau of Prisons will notify all federal inmates of the initiative and provide them with the six criteria. The Bureau of Prisons will provide inmates who believe they fit the criteria with an electronic survey to complete. Department Attorneys will evaluate the surveys to screen if the inmate’s petition warrants further consideration. Inmates who meet the clemency criteria will be provided with a pro-bono attorney to prepare their clemency application. The Department of Justice is detailing lawyers, on a temporary basis, to the Pardon Attorney’s Office in order to review commutation applications submitted under this initiative. The DOJ is also working with the Federal Public Defender Service to find additional lawyers to help with this initiative.
Once determining which applications merit further consideration, the DOJ will consult with the United States Attorney’s Office and the trial judge for their views.
The combination of replacing Rodgers with Deborah Leff with establishing new criteria and procedures will go a long way to rectify unequal justice. Leff”s predecessor, Ronald L. Rodgers, was a Bush administration hold over. He is perhaps best known for his incompetence in Clarence Aaron’s clemency application, as condemned in the Inspector-General’s report.
One need only look at sentencing inequities between cocaine offenses (a drug of the privileged) and the cheaper version crack/cocaine offenses to understand the severity of this injustice and the importance of steps the President has made to rectify it.
In 2006, African Americans made up 82% of the federal prison population for crack related offenses and 27% of cocaine related offenses. Until nearly a decade ago, the sentencing guidelines called for harsher sentences for crack related offenses by a ratio of 100 to 1 when compared to cocaine related offenses.
Earlier in his presidency, Barack Obama signed the Fairness in Sentencing Act to address unfair sentencing disparities and he commuted the sentences of 8 federal inmates who were serving sentences for crack/cocaine offenses.
Similar injustices occur with other non-violent crimes. While we are jailing non-violent drug offenders, stigmatizing them with job discrimination etc. and disenfranchising them for life in several states, people of privilege who also engage in non-violent crimes, but ruin thousands of people’s lives in the process never face trial, let alone the aforementioned consequences. The same problem exists with violent crime. Just one example of this is seen in a judge’s refusal to sentence a rich man convicted of child rape to jail time because “he wouldn’t fare well.”
This doesn’t even touch the issues that come with the prison industrial complex procuring a contractual commitment by states to guarantee full occupancy in exchange for the private prison’s “services”.
Considering that a sizeable number of people languishing in our jails are there for non-violent drug offences, clemency reforms is the next logical step to take in an effort to provide some semblance of equal justice.
Without a doubt, Republicans will resent the President’s efforts and they will offer all sorts of marketing ploys to disguise their contempt for the idea that justice should treat 99% of Americans equally to the 1%. Ask if we care.