Two years ago, President Obama unveiled an initiative to give early release to potentially thousands of federal prisoners serving long sentences for low-level drug crimes. The initiative has barely made a dent, and a resignation letter from the president’s recently departed Pardon Attorney lays out at least one reason why.
“The position in which my office has been placed, asking us to address the petitions of nearly 10,000 individuals with so few attorneys and support staff, means that the requests of thousands of petitioners seeking justice will lie unheard,” wrote Deborah Leff, who resigned in January.
Leff also wrote that her office was denied “all access to the Office of White House Counsel,” which reviews prisoners’ applications before the president gets them.
Since his announcement two years ago, the president has granted early release to just 187 prisoners.
Leff’s resignation letter was obtained by USA Today.
Dysfunction in the Office of the Pardon Attorney is nothing new: We reported on problems in the office that stretch back to 2001. Take the case of Clarence Aaron, a black man sentenced to three life terms for a cocaine deal, even though he wasn’t the buyer, seller, or supplier. Aaron’s appeal for clemency was denied by then-President George W. Bush, even though the prosecutor’s office and sentencing judge supported clemency. Why? Here’s our original story:
Records show that Ronald Rodgers, the current pardon attorney, left out critical information in recommending that the White House deny Aaron’s application. In a confidential note to a White House lawyer, Rodgers failed to accurately convey the views of the prosecutor and judge and did not disclose that they had advocated for Aaron’s immediate commutation.
Rodgers was removed in 2014 and replaced by Leff. Obama ultimately ordered Aaron’s release in April 2014.
The pardon office’s problems go far beyond just one case or one attorney. White criminals are four times as likely to get a presidential pardon as minorities, a ProPublica analysis found. We also found that it’s helpful to know somebody important:
A statistical analysis of nearly 500 pardon applicants during the Bush administration suggests that advocacy makes a difference. Applicants with a member of Congress in their corner were three times as likely to win a pardon as those without such backing. Interviews and documents show a lawmaker’s support can speed up a stalled application, counter negative information and ratchet up pressure for an approval.
Reacting to our stories, the Department of Justice announced in August 2012 that it would commission a study testing racial disparities in presidential pardons. Nothing further has been publicly disclosed about that effort and it’s unclear whether the study was ever completed. We have contacted the department to ask them the status of both that and for further comment on Leff’s resignation. We’ll update as soon as we hear back.