The Obama administration has requested a comprehensive review and analysis of all federal inmate commutation guidelines after a recent investigation revealed whites are far more likely to receive presidential pardons than any other race and blacks typically fare at least four times worse off than any other group in even being recommended for such treatment.
The Department of Justice is now slated to embark upon a first-of-its-kind, in-depth analysis of the issue after a flood of recent exposes published by ProPulica.com and the Washington Post spurred deep criticisms of the federal government’s Office of Pardon Attorney division over its handling of such issues, including researchers’ findings of all the wide-ranging racial disparity.
Much of the recent activity has been sparked by the publicized plight of Clarence Aaron, a 43-year-old federal inmate in Alabama, who, without commutation, faces the hardened prospect of spending the rest of his life behind bars. A first-time offender, Aaron was convicted in 1993 and sentenced to three life terms for his role in a drug conspiracy case.
In 2008, it was recommended to outgoing President George W. Bush that Aaron be immediately pardoned, but all such efforts fell woefully short when the pardon attorney assigned to the case strongly suggested that he remain imprisoned. In doing so, lead attorney Ronald L. Rogers ignored the support for such action coming from the prosecutor’s office, which initially tried the case and the judge who presided over it and meted out Aaron’s clearly stern sentence.
Later, it was revealed that Rogers also failed to fully disclose much of that information to the White House prior to administrators rendering their decision on clemency. Subsequent investigation has also found that since Rogers took over as lead in the pardon office, the department has engaged in an unprecedented pattern of rejecting nearly all such requests. Since 2008, more than 7,000 applications have been denied, more than 22 times the total rejected during President Ronald Reagan’s entire two terms combined.
With the Obama administration in full operational mode and armed with the growing support of prominent civil rights activists, members of Congress and law scholars, Aaron filed a new commutation request in 2010 that is still pending. Many of those aforementioned advocates have now also gone on record as being in favor of a much broader and comprehensive overhaul of the entire pardon process.
While White House spokesperson Matt Lehrich recently declined to directly address Aaron’s case in a Washington Post interview, he stopped short of refuting widespread speculation the administration has taken on a renewed interest in reforming and overhauling the process, thus stemming a tide that has lingered since the early days of Bush 2.
George W. Bush granted 189 pardons during his eight-year presidency, less than half the total number pardoned by Bill Clinton over the same time frame. Thus far, the Obama White House has granted 22 pardons, though advisors signal they expect that total to significantly increase— given a second term for the administration.
Still others closely monitoring the Aaron case and some of the administration’s recent machinations related to it suggest the movement may even predate those days. "There will be 76 days between the election and inauguration for the president to exercise his power," an administration official requesting anonymity told the Washington Post, adding that in recent weeks the White House had directly requested a new review of the case by DOJ officials.
As for Rodgers, his involvement in the Aaron case appears no more, as he’s been replaced by deputy attorney Helen M. Bollwerk amid rumors the White House has lost all confidence in him and has quietly began the process of searching for his replacement.
“The arguments for clemency have all been well made and the White House knows those facts,” said Margaret Lowe, a former clemency pardon attorney now representing Aaron pro bono. “He has a job waiting for him and he will have real help integrating back into his community,” said Love, adding that she, Aaron’s family and community leaders in his hometown of Mobile, Ala. all have developed a “reentry plan,” for him should he gain release.
As far back as his first year in office, Obama, then under the direction of then chief White House counsel Gregory B. Craig, has privately sought to create a bipartisan commission he felt could operate similarly to a parole board, sans some of the constraints which routinely handcuff DOJ officials.
The plan lost steam in 2009 after Craig left the administration, but in recent weeks advisors have expressed renewed enthusiasm. "We are now getting in place the framework for a comprehensive, independent study," said Wyn Hornbuckle, a DOJ spokesperson. The Bureau of Justice Statistics will now take steps to partner with an independent firm to conduct the study, slated to focus on “how petitions for pardons are adjudicated and whether any discernible bias exists.”
Only weeks ago a group of influential law professors penned a letter to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, calling on Congress to “examine the Office of the Pardon Attorney’s conduct with regard to applicants for sentence commutations.” It was the fourth such request made to a congressional committee since the story of Aaron’s travails broke mere months ago.
“These legal experts see exactly what we see: a pardon attorney’s office that is failing to provide the president with the unbiased information he needs to fulfill his constitutional clemency power fully and fairly,” said Julie Stewart, president of the Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a nonpartisan group based in Washington that has successfully advocated on behalf of clemency applicants.
Glenn Minnis is a NYC-based sports and culture writer. Follow him on Twitter at @glennnyc.