Obama Grants Clemency To 111 Prisoners; DOJ 'Confident' It Will Clear Backlog

Aug 30, 2016
Originally published on August 30, 2016 6:24 pm

President Obama shortened the prison sentences of 111 inmates Tuesday, including 35 people who had expected to spend the rest of their lives in federal custody, authorities told NPR.

Word of the new batch of clemency grants came as the second in command at the Justice Department told NPR that lawyers there have worked through an enormous backlog of drug cases and, despite doubts from prisoner advocates, they will be able to consider each of the thousands of applications from drug criminals before Obama leaves office in 2017.

"At our current pace, we are confident that we will be able to review and make a recommendation to the president on every single drug petition we currently have," Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates said.

The early releases apply to mostly nonviolent drug offenders who would have received lighter punishments if they committed the same crimes today. The new commutations mean this White House has granted 673 commutations, more than the past 10 presidents combined. Tuesday's grants follow 214 more earlier this month.

In February the new pardon attorney, Robert Zauzmer, asserted that stacks of petitions would not be left on his table next year. But that had long been in doubt. After the Justice Department and the White House launched the initiative for drug offenders about two years ago, white-collar criminals, sex predators and violent criminals sent their applications, too. Those petitions flooded volunteer lawyers and officials in the Office of Pardon Attorney.

The pardon attorney, Deborah Leff, ultimately resigned after raising alarms about insufficient resources to do the job, which she said could "change the lives of a great many deserving people."

Lawyers working for prisoners said there's still a lot more work for the administration to do. Mark Osler, who led an effort by three dozen law professors and advocates to get the White House to pick up the pace, estimated that 1,500 drug prisoners should win commutations based on the administration's criteria. By his math, that means the president has not yet moved on more than half of the inmates who should win shorter sentences.

"I sometimes say I feel like the guy that's rowing a lifeboat and you're glad you have a few people in the boat, but you're feeling this impending sense of panic about people in the water," Osler told NPR in June. "It's a scary thing and part of it is because they've been given hope. ... Every time there's an announcement of clemency and other people are receiving it, it's heartbreaking for them, it's heartbreaking for me."

In an interview, White House Counsel Neil Eggleston said the president gives each request a special, individualized review, keeping in mind their crimes, their record in prison and whether they merit a second chance, to walk their grandchildren to school or hug their families. Eggleston said the president "doesn't think of it as a number he wants to reach."

"The president's view is that he would like to grant as many worthy petitions as get to his desk and I think he's going to tell me to put worthy petitions on his desk until the last day, and that's what I intend to do," Eggleston said.

Osler, the law professor and lawyer for inmates seeking mercy, said he thinks the president believes in the effort. Obama, he said, visited a prison and went to lunch with people who won clemency. The question for the next five months is whether the White House can finish the job, even if it angers some Republicans in Congress, Osler added.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Obama has granted early release to 111 more prisoners today, including 35 who had been expected to die in federal custody. This news comes as the Justice Department reports it has worked through a huge backlog of petitions from nonviolent drug criminals. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The White House says its clemency push is about making sure that punishment fits the crime. With today's action, President Obama has now commuted the sentences of 673 prisoners. More than a third of them had been sentenced to life. Neil Eggleston is the White House counsel.

NEIL EGGLESTON: For the people who have been sentenced to life in prison, when they learn that they've gotten this commutation, it's really their chance to walk their grandkid to school for the first time, hug their family members and all of that. So it's really a chance for them to experience a second chance.

JOHNSON: The Justice Department takes a close look at each inmate's petition. Lawyers study their original crime and their prison record before passing their recommendations onto the president. The clemency effort launched two years ago to help nonviolent drug offenders who would face less time if they were sentenced today. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates says prisoners flooded Justice with requests.

SALLY YATES: After the initiative was announced, thousands and thousands of individuals filed petitions, but many of those were not drug defendants at all. They were white-collar defendants, violent crime, child exploitation defendants. So we have prioritized the drug petitions and streamlined the process.

JOHNSON: Yates says her lawyers have managed to work through that enormous backlog of drug cases.

YATES: At our current pace, we are confident that we will be able to review and make a recommendation to the president on every single drug petition that we currently have.

JOHNSON: It's not clear whether the White House, which makes the final call, will finish its work on all of those petitions. But Eggleston, the president's lawyer, says he has instructions to stay on the job.

EGGLESTON: The president's view is that he would like to grant as many worthy petitions as get to his desk. And I think he's going to tell me to put worthy petitions on his desk until the last day, and that's what I intend to do.

JOHNSON: Three of Mark Osler's legal clients won clemency today. All three were lifers. It's a great day, Osler says. But by his count, 1,500 people deserve mercy, and fewer than half have received it.

MARK OSLER: I sometimes say that I feel like the guy that is rowing a lifeboat. And you're glad you have a few people in the boat, but you're feeling this impending sense of panic about the people in the water.

JOHNSON: Osler says he thinks President Obama is committed to the idea of clemency.

OSLER: I mean he visited a prison. He sat down with these people. He went to lunch with people who've received clemency. He really believes in this. And like so many other things, the tough part is the implementation and the willing to probably make some people angry.

JOHNSON: He says as the president prepares to leave office, displeasing Republicans in Congress may not matter so much to him anymore. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.