Biden Administration Set to Tackle Clemency Backlog

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President Joe Biden. Photo by Todd Jacobucci via Flickr.

America is suffering under the largest backlog of unresolved clemency cases in U.S. history, stemming from the former Trump administration, with 14,000 people waiting to hear their fate if convictions would be erased or sentences reduced. Now, current White House officials are signaling that President Joe Biden is prepared to tackle the backlog behind the scenes, Politico and The Hill report. 

Kicking the process off last week, Biden held a Zoom call with advocates and formerly incarcerated people to discuss criminal justice reform, as well as nodding to the possibility of Biden using executive powers to issue “pardons or communications” in the future.

“It was clear that they are working on something,” said phone-call participant Norris Henderson, founder and executive director of New Orleans-based Voice of the Experienced, as quoted by The Hill. “They are looking at that right now as an avenue to start doing things.”

Currently, the White House has declined requests for comment when asked about Biden’s plans for clemency grants, as well as when the American people can expect his reforms.

To that end, Deana Hoskins, president of JustLeadershipUSA, spoke with The Hill and detailed that officials clearly communicated that Biden is “not waiting until the end of his presidency” to issue pardons or communications for the backlog and growing caseload. 

“It was very promising because he already, from the White House perspective, has staff working on this,” Hoskins said.

Who Gets Clemency? 

In the past, individuals who get clemency from the president come from varying backgrounds and different circumstances, with Vox News noting that in the past, it’s come down to who the president personally knows as the petitioner. 

To that end, Biden has said he supports using his clemency powers to “secure the release of individuals facing long sentences for certain non-violent and drug crimes.” 

However, clemency won’t address or fix mass incarceration or the war on drugs on its own — mainly because clemency is only reserved for federal inmates, while the majority of people experiencing incarceration for drug-related offenses are held at the state or local level, Vox News explains. 

Still, clemency shouldn’t be off the table, as many believe President Biden has the opportunity to create impactful change. 

Current advocates are arguing for a “ground-up rethinking of clemency” saying “the president could reform the whole process to systematically cut sentences for federal inmates caught in the frenzy of America’s drug war and mass incarceration,” according to Vox News. 

The ACLU launched a similar ad campaign to push clemency for 25,000 people, noting that Biden could impart meaningful reform if he immediately released “the elderly, the sick, those swept up in the war on drugs, and people locked up because of racist policies of the past that have since change,” according to the ACLU clemency press release.

Advocates are also arguing that in order to cut back on the backlog of growing cases, Biden could move the clemency process out of the Justice Department, and alternatively set up an advisory board that would handle clemency requests. 

This is not a novel idea, advocates note, citing that Senators Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker have proposed this during their presidential campaigns. 

Justice Department Backlog

When President Biden took office earlier this year, he inherited the largest backlog of unresolved clemency cases — a staggering 14,000 cases of people waiting for answers. 

See Also: 14,000 Federal Inmates Seek Clemency; Who Will Get It? December 2020

Many of these cases have stagnated due to former President Trump bypassing a “century-old process for reviewing cases” by listening to politically connected friends, high-priced lobbyists, and TV celebrities, Politico details. 

If the backlog were the only problem, advocates note that the hurdle would be daunting enough, but the issue has only been compounded by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Days before Trump left office, Politico recounts how the Department of Justice issued a legal opinion authorizing the Bureau of Prisons to return more than 7,000 federal inmates confined to their homes during the outbreak and move them back to prison. 

The Biden administration is expected to review and possibly rescind the opinion, Politico notes. 

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, on top of the current backlog, since the start of his Presidency, Biden has 3,211 pending pardon applications and 11,804 pending communications. Roughly 400 cases have been closed without Presidential Action, but more is still left to be done. 

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer

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