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, reports 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. That compares with an average of 500 to 1,000 in the five decades since World War II. Petitions soared during the final years of the Clinton administration and have 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 Lewis “Scooter” Libby in July. Critics 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. “The number of cases that are not being acted on is skyrocketing,” said P.S. Ruckman Jr., a clemency expert at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Il. The Justice Department says the processing and evaluation of cases “takes significant time, and in many cases, several years.” The department said it is aware of the staffing needs to process the increase in clemency petitions and is working to address it.