Sunday, February 16, 2014
A New York Time’s editorial recently outlined how presidential clemency which allows the President of the United States to either commute unjust sentences or pardon deserving petitioners who have served their time, has decreased over the past several decades. The editorial stressed there is now a call for reviving this much needed practice…and that we should heed that call.
U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole recently encouraged the criminal defense bar to assist the Justice Department in finding suitable candidates for clemency among the thousands of people who were incarcerated unjustly as a result of mandatory minimum sentencing.
Mr. Cole was talking specifically about low-level, nonviolent, and many first-time drug offenders who are serving draconian, “life or near-life” sentences, who The Times’ reported “are trapped permanently at the margins of society by post prison sanctions — laws that bar them from jobs and housing, strip them of the right to vote and make it difficult for them to obtain essential documents like drivers’ licenses.”
As much as I agree with The Times and Mr. Cole’s assessment, I would strongly urge a bigger, broader look at the problem and how to address it.
Drug offenders are not the only ones suffering from post-prison sanctions, nor are they the only people who are serving unjust or unfair sentences as a result of the federal sentencing guidelines or mandatory minimums.
If our Founding Father’s beliefs were truly that all men are created equal, and that the punishment must fit the crime, and once you have been punished, you have served your debt to society, then our failings are far greater than the American people could ever imagine.
The collateral damage to a convicted felon, not just to a drug offender, is the same. There are men convicted of first time, non-violent, non-drug offenses with Master’s degrees and Ph.D’s who cannot find a job. There are similarly convicted members of our Armed Forces who put their lives on the line for us in war but who cannot now find housing. The label of “convicted felon” is a life sentence of personal, financial and professional hardship that creates an unending burden, not just to the individuals and their families, but to society as well.
Presidential clemency is needed to right the wrongs in the drug sentencing laws, but it is also needed to give those men and women who deserve it, a real second chance. Our system of justice today offers none.
I agree with the Times that the Justice Department’s recent interest in the clemency problem is good news, but looking beyond the Justice Department’s Pardon Office is a must.
There are men and women sitting in prison or who have already served an enormous amount of time, yet do not have the money to hire attorneys to file a petition of clemency or the education to do so on their own.
Counselors and case managers in the federal prison system can be extremely helpful in identifying candidates for consideration. So can advocacy groups, family members, and others willing to handle the necessary paperwork in a skillful manner.
In considering changes in the mandatory minimums and sentencing guidelines, our legislators must look at ways to make those deserving U.S. citizens whole, once they have paid their debt to society for mistakes they have made. A life-long period of punishment is unjust, unfair, and un-American.
In speaking about presidential clemency, Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy once said, “A people confident in its laws and institutions should not be ashamed of mercy. The greatest of poets reminds us that mercy is ’mightiest in the mightiest.’ It becomes the throned monarch better than his crown.” I hope more lawyers involved in the pardon process will say to the powers that decide, “This man has not served his full sentence, but he has served long enough. Give him what only you can give him. Give him a second chance. Give him a priceless gift. Give him liberty."
In a country bound by what I believe is the greatest Constitution on the face of the earth, we must encourage the use of presidential clemency as the Times’ suggests. We should also encourage our legislators to do the job that they were sworn to do, and create laws that are fair, impartial and, most importantly, with punishments that fit the crime, not ones that last for eternity.