A Supreme Court justice's observations about a dearth of commutations in recent years and a high-profile whistleblower's clemency petition have breathed new life into a public discussion about reforming the federal pardon program, reports MainJustice.com. Justice Department and White House officials have been considering changes to the system since the start of the Obama administration, though the White House appears to have scaled back its ambitions after key personnel changes. Former White House Counsel Greg Craig led a push for major reforms before stepping down last November.
The Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney receives clemency applications and makes recommendations to the White House via the Office of the Deputy Attorney General. A steep backlog in the pardon office coupled with fewer clemency grants in recent years has driven applicants to reach out to the White House directly. Some critics say the current system is obsolete because it provides the president with no assurances that his grants will be free of political consequences. An idea favored by Craig was the creation of a blue-ribbon commission or an advisory process inside the Justice Department but apart from the pardon attorney. Last month,when the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case brought by a federal prisoner who was sentenced in 1993 to 27 years behind bars for trafficking in crack cocaine, Justice Anthony Kennedy questioned whether the lack of commutations last year and the five the year before signaled that “something is not working in the system.”