Fewer Hands, More Mercy: A Plea for a Better Federal Clemency System
41 Pages Posted: 8 Sep 2016 Last revised: 29 Dec 2020
Date Written: September 6, 2016
The constitutional pardon power has generated more controversy than mercy over the past three decades. Even President Obama, who has pursued a focused clemency initiative, has struggled to meet historical standards. While changing ideas relating to retribution play a role in this decline, there is another significant factor at play: too much bureaucracy. Beginning around 1980, a review process has evolved that is redundant and biased towards negative decisions. No fewer than seven levels of review take place as cases course through four different federal buildings, a jagged path that dooms the process. For years, this bureaucracy stymied even President Obama’s intention to reduce prison populations; the relative success of his clemency initiative came despite this bureaucracy, not because of it, and only after seven and a half years of futility. This article analyzes the development of this system and the problems it creates before offering solutions based on the experience of state governments and President Ford’s successful use of a Presidential Clemency Board.
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