Restructuring Clemency: The Cost of Ignoring Clemency and a Plan for Renewal

19 Pages Posted: 14 Aug 2014 Last revised: 5 Sep 2014

See all articles by Rachel E. Barkow

Rachel E. Barkow

New York University School of Law

Mark William Osler

University of St. Thomas - School of Law (Minnesota)

Date Written: 2014


Over the past three decades, the pardon power has too often been ignored or used to create calamities rather than cure them. Our most recent Presidents seem to realize the system is not working only at the end of their time in office, when they feel safe in giving grants but become aware of the fact that the system does not produce many recommendations for doing so even when asked. As a key constitutional power, clemency deserves to be more than an afterthought to a presidential term. The use of the pardon power is a necessary element in a fully-functioning system of criminal law. Recent presidents, however, have largely ignored this powerful tool, even as some have sought to expand the power of the office in other ways. This essay seeks both to describe the costs of this trend and to propose important structural reforms to reverse it. Specifically, we advocate for the creation of an independent commission with a standing, diverse membership. While this commission should have representation from the Department of Justice and take the views of prosecutors seriously, the commission itself should exist outside the Department and its recommendations should go directly to the White House. This new model of clemency should also pay attention to data both to create uniform standards and to focus the use of the pardon power on policy as a management tool. An emphasis on data will also help the new pardon commission make evidence-based decisions about risk and reentry. It is time to view clemency reform as a priority for the office of the presidency no matter who holds the position. This is the time to create a better machine of mercy.

Keywords: clemency, pardon power, pardon attorney, commutation, department of justice, clemency board

Suggested Citation

Barkow, Rachel E. and Osler, Mark William, Restructuring Clemency: The Cost of Ignoring Clemency and a Plan for Renewal (2014). University of Chicago Law Review, 2014, Forthcoming, U of St. Thomas (Minnesota) Legal Studies Research Paper No. 14-28, NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 14-42, Available at SSRN:

Rachel E. Barkow

New York University School of Law ( email )

40 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012-1099
United States
212-992-8829 (Phone)

Mark William Osler (Contact Author)

University of St. Thomas - School of Law (Minnesota) ( email )

MSL 400, 1000 La Salle Avenue
Minneapolis, MN Minnesota 55403-2005
United States
(254) 717-7032 (Phone)

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