Broken federal leniency system must be fixed

The reform was what was promised in the Democratic Party’s own program. Clemency was what President Biden promised for the thousands of federal inmates released into house arrest during the pandemic, but who remain in bureaucratic limbo.

And reform is what Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley is proposing in the FIX Clemency Act, recently tabled with Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri and Hakeem Jeffries of New York.

“Our current leniency system is broken,” Pressley said at a press conference announcing the bill’s tabling. “It is inherently flawed, very cumbersome, and robs thousands of chances for redemption and righteousness.”

Unlike state systems – and Massachusetts is certainly not a model of efficiency or transparency either – the federal leniency system begins in the bowels of the Department of Justice. Yes, that would be the same Justice Department largely responsible for keeping the prisoner behind bars in the first place. And while the Constitution ultimately vests the president’s clemency power, it is the rather obscure office of the pardon attorney within the DOJ that holds the real power to issue that golden ticket to freedom. .

“Redundant review levels from DOJ staff.” . . can unilaterally prevent a pardon request from reaching the President, ”Pressley said.

She called the current system both a “political failure” and a “moral failure”, but added that for her the problem is also personal.

“Growing up with an incarcerated parent, I can only imagine how different my own childhood would have been if my father had received the help he desperately needed and deserved,” she said.

Under his bill, an independent nine-member United States Clemency Council, appointed by the president, would replace the office of the pardon attorney. However, as we have seen at the state level, boards generally reflect the values ​​of the people who appoint them. In Massachusetts, that means the Pardons Advisory Council has only approved and sent two requests for clemency to Governor Charlie Baker during his seven-year tenure – both of which remain on its desk for now. But in Pennsylvania, a similar council sent dozens of commutations to Governor Tom Wolf’s office, which approved nearly all of them.

However, the table proposed by the FIX bill contains safeguards. It should include a former incarcerated person, a person directly affected by the crime, a member of a federal defense organization and a representative of the Ministry of Justice as well as those “with significant experience with the criminal justice system, leniency, behavioral health, or reintegration services.

The board would be required to act on petitions within 18 months, keep statistics on granted and rejected petitions, and report annually to Congress on those petitions – in addition to making its recommendations to the president.

Of course, a legislative solution – valuable as it may be – is a long way to go in a deeply divided Congress that has found little it can agree on these days. He cannot provide timely assistance to these 16,000 people who are waiting for a response now.

President Biden’s only graces to date have been peanut butter and jelly, Thanksgiving turkeys. And while this is not unusual in the first year of an administration – after all, even the current pardon’s attorney is a holdover serving in an “interim” capacity – it is an administration that has made a commitment. reduce incarceration.

And as recently as September, an administration spokesperson said the president was “exploring the use of his clemency power” for non-violent offenders released by the Bureau of Prisons in house arrest in the spring. 2020 as COVID-19 hits the prison system. Of the nearly 8,000 inmates at home, some 3,000 are at risk of re-incarceration after the current emergency ends. This week, days before Christmas, the Justice Department issued a ruling allowing the Bureau of Prisons to exercise discretion and avoid “one general policy.”

However, for an estimated 10,000 others who have filed for clemency but remain behind bars, there is only long wait and no clear end in sight.

“Behind every app is an individual, an individual connected to a family, a family that is part of a community,” Pressley told NPR. “So people’s lives are literally at stake.”

They are indeed. And as Congress mulls over a long-term solution, surely the president could give his own Justice Department marching orders to speed up a process that has been left in limbo for too long.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.

About Lillie Berry

Lillie Berry

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