The Justice Department will drastically increase the number of attorneys it has on staff to deal with what is expected to be a massive push by President Obama to grant clemency to federal prisoners before the end of his term.
The Office of the Pardon Attorney, which handles the federal government’s clemency cases, posted a job listing for 16 attorney advisors on the Justice Department’s website on Tuesday.
The number of expected hires is more than double the agency’s staffing level as of May 2013. Then, seven permanent attorneys — the pardon attorney, a deputy and five staff attorneys — were on staff.
But that was before Obama’s Justice Department announced a clemency initiative to encourage federal prisoners to petition to have their sentences reduced or vacated.
The initiative, announced in April 2014, applies to federal prisoners who have served at least 10 years of their prison sentence for non-violent crimes. Successful applicants must not have “significant ties” to criminal organizations, gangs, or cartels. They also must have neither a significant criminal history nor a history of violence prior to or during their prison sentence.
The call for more applications had an immediate impact.
Whereas 5,488 clemency applications were filed during the Clinton presidency and 8,574 were filed during the George W. Bush presidency, 18,924 federal prisoners have applied for commutations or pardons during Obama’s tenure. In 2014 alone, 6,561 applications were filed.
So far, Obama has commuted — or reduced — sentences for 184 prisoners. Bush commuted just 11 sentences while Clinton did so for 61 prisoners. Obama has, however, lagged behind his predecessors in terms of pardons. He has pardoned 66 prisoners so far while Bush and Clinton pardoned 189 and 396 prisoners, respectively. Pardons, which are typically granted after prisoners have completed their sentences, restore lost rights, such as voting and gun ownership rights.
But as the Justice Department’s hiring spree suggests — and as Obama himself has indicated — more clemency announcements should be expected before Jan. 20, 2017, when the next president takes office.
When the clemency initiative was first announced, senior Obama administration officials said that “hundreds, perhaps thousands” of federal prisoners would be granted relief.
And in a Huffington Post interview last year, Obama promised to “aggressively” exercise his pardon power.
“I think what you’ll see is not only me exercising that pardon power and clemency power more aggressively for people who meet the criteria — nonviolent crimes, have served already a long period of time, have shown that they’re rehabilitated,” Obama said.
He also claimed during that interview that he had been approved relatively few clemency applications during his first term in office because of ineffective leadership at the Office of the Pardon Attorney. He said that the cases he received for review “didn’t address the broader issues that we face, particularly around nonviolent drug offenses.”
“So we’ve revamped now the DOJ office. We’re now getting much more representative applicants,” Obama stated.
But not everyone is on board with the clemency push.
As one GOP Hill aide told The Daily Caller: “The president’s clemency agenda is already well underway, but this suggests he’s far from finished.”
“Frightening,” the aide added.Others, such as Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, have said that Obama’s initiative is unconstitutional.
“This is not, as the Founders intended, an exercise of the power to provide for ‘exceptions in favour of unfortunate guilt,’ but instead the use of the pardon power to benefit an entire class of offenders who were duly convicted in a court of law — not to mention a blatant usurpation of the lawmaking authority of the Legislative branch,” Goodlatte wrote in a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch in July.
The Office of the Pardon Attorney did not respond to TheDC’s request for comment and additional staffing statistics.