WASHINGTON -- The federal clemency system is approaching gridlock as a surge in applications for pardons and commutations has resulted in the largest and most persistent backlog of cases in recent history, according to federal data obtained by the Los Angeles Times.
As of Oct. 1, more than 3,000 petitions for clemency filed by federal prisoners were pending with the Office of the Pardon Attorney, Justice Department statistics show. That compares with an average of 500 to 1,000 in the five decades since World War II.
The number of petitions soared during the final years of the Clinton administration and has remained high under President Bush, creating a buildup of pending applications that has averaged more than 2,000 a year since 2001.
The backlog has grown sharply in recent months. After acting on several hundred petitions each year since 2001, Bush closed only 18 cases in fiscal 2007, which ended Sept. 30. The last action Bush took was to commute the 30-month prison term of former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby in July.
The logjam has enormous emotional and practical consequences for inmates and their supporters, who often must wait years to get a decision. Critics of the federal justice system see clemency as an important safety valve at a time when parole is no longer available for federal inmates and when many prisoners have been sentenced under stiff mandatory minimum sentencing laws enacted by Congress in the 1980s.
There is a growing debate about the impact and fairness of those laws, including measures that have punished African Americans disproportionately for possessing or distributing crack cocaine. Indeed, legal experts say the surge in petitions is fueled in part by people who have spent a decade or more in prison after being sentenced under tough federal drug laws.
Critics say the lack of action on clemency applications reflects an abandonment by Bush of the discretion he holds under the Constitution to commute sentences. Bush has granted 113 pardons and commuted four sentences since taking office. That is the lowest number of any president since World War II, except for President George H.W. Bush, who granted 74 pardons and three commutations in his one term.
The critics also said the backlog raises questions about whether the Justice Department is up to the task of assessing petitions in an orderly and fair way.
"The number of cases that are not being acted on is skyrocketing," said P.S. Ruckman Jr., a clemency expert and author who is an associate professor of political science at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Ill. "There have been times in history when there have been just as many applications but not this huge gap" of unresolved cases, Ruckman said.
The Justice Department said it receives more than 1,000 clemency petitions yearly. "The processing and evaluation of these cases takes significant time, and in many cases, several years," the department said in a statement. "The Department is aware of the staffing needs to process the increase in clemency petitions and is working to address this."
An additional staff attorney has been assigned to the Office of the Pardon Attorney, according to the statement. And, "the Department will continue to evaluate the staffing needs of the office."
The Justice Department also noted that it "routinely sends clemency recommendations to the White House," suggesting that the backlog is due in part to the president's inaction. "The timing of clemency grants and denials is the president's constitutional prerogative," the statement said.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto said: "We neither encourage nor discourage clemency recommendations, and do not interfere in the process. Clemency decisions are made on a case-by-case basis."
The growing backlog is demoralizing for families and supporters of inmates.
Four years ago, Robert McLaughlin of Kennebunkport, Maine, took up the cause of a local man, Lance Persson, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 1995 for dealing drugs. One of the people he sold drugs to, a friend called "Hardcore," died from an overdose.
Persson has turned his life around: He has become a licensed nursing assistant and personal trainer, and is just a few credits short of his bachelor of arts degree. He also was "valedictorian" of his alcohol and drug relapse and prevention class.
The U.S. attorney at the time of his sentencing supports his immediate release. So does a prison minister who says Persson has achieved a profound spiritual awakening. The pastor of his hometown church asked him to write an article about freedom that she read this summer at services around the Fourth of July.
His cause has even been taken up by the president's aunt, Nancy Bush Ellis, who attends the Kennebunkport church where Persson's mother is a member. Ellis, who declined to comment for this article, has visited Persson in prison and, according to McLaughlin, has made inquiries on the inmate's behalf.
McLaughlin says his belief that Bush would come to see the punishment for Persson as excessive and no longer necessary was, in retrospect, "naive."
"I thought that something rational could be done," he said. "I don't have a bottomless pit to get the best lawyers in Washington. Even if I did, I am not sure that would help."
Bush also has not responded to some requests from the powerful and influential. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) has written to the Justice Department and Bush on behalf of a Grammy Award-winning rap artist, John Forte, a first-time offender who was sentenced to 14 years in prison on a federal cocaine conviction.
"Now is the perfect opportunity for John to be given the chance to provide positive benefits to society through his considerable musical talents," Hatch said, in a letter to Bush in January. Hatch's office declined to discuss the case; the clemency request is pending.
History suggests that Bush will make more clemency moves before leaving office; several presidents have waited until their final days. President Clinton famously pardoned 140 people two hours before leaving office in January 2001.
A group called Families Against Mandatory Minimums is pressing for about a dozen commutations of sentences, many involving women who were sentenced to lengthy drug-related sentences. "Instead of just pardoning a turkey, we would like the president to also commute [the sentences of] some human beings," said Molly Gill, a lawyer with the Washington-based advocacy group, referring to the traditional ceremonial pardoning of Thanksgiving turkeys at the White House.
Bush's decision in the Libby case, while attacked as politically motivated, is also raising some hopes.
The president expressed concern that Libby, a person with no criminal history, could be subjected to a prison term. Critics say that is the reality of the criminal justice system for scores of lesser-known inmates, and they hope that the Libby case will open the president's eyes to that reality.
Bush may also be influenced by his new attorney general, Michael B. Mukasey, a retired federal judge who has had years of experience with the federal sentencing system.
"This is not just a call for Bush to get with the holiday spirit," said Douglas A. Berman, a sentencing expert and professor at Ohio State law school. "It may also be a call for a new attorney general to recognize that his job . . . is also to be attentive to the more common injustices that, sadly, we can get numb to."
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