The Big Story - Molly Gill, FAMM Director of Special Projects
The U.S. Office of the Pardon Attorney is broken. We at FAMM have known that for a long time, but a May 13 investigative story published by ProPublica and The Washington Post confirmed it. The report revealed how the pardon attorney’s office sabotaged the commutation petition of Clarence Aaron, a first-time, nonviolent drug offender serving three life sentences, by misrepresenting facts about his case to the president.
The Office of Pardon Attorney (OPA) is housed within the Justice Department and tasked with helping the president review applications for clemency. “Clemency” means an act of leniency or mercy and can take the form of a pardon, which usually restores a person’s rights after he has served his sentence, or a commutation, which reduces a person’s prison sentence while they are still serving it, but doesn’t restore rights.
Clemency is the last hope for thousands of federal prisoners serving excessive sentences, so it’s critical that the pardon attorney’s office give each case a full and careful review. Unfortunately, that isn’t happening. On May 14, FAMM called for a congressional investigation of the Office of the Pardon Attorney. We recruited three dozen criminal justice, religious, and civil liberties groups to join us on a letter asking the Senate Judiciary Committee to investigate. We took our message to the Washington Post editorial page and American Constitution Society blog , and it was also spread by Main Justice , The Root , and the Mobile Post-Register . Representatives John Conyers (D-MI) and Bobby Scott (D-VA) wrote to President Obama , asking him to direct the Attorney General to investigate misdeeds in Clarence Aaron’s case. I echoed that call in this Huffington Post column .
On May 24, FAMM held a briefing at the National Press Club to underscore how OPA’s failures have affected people’s lives. Our speakers included Linda Aaron (Clarence’s mother); Debi Campbell, who served 17 years in prison for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense and was denied a commutation three times; and Derrick Curry, who received a commutation after serving 8½ years of a 19-year sentence for his minor role in a crack conspiracy. We also benefited from the participation of Dafna Linzer, a senior reporter for ProPublica and author of the OPA stories, and Sam Morison, who served for 13 years as a staff attorney at the OPA. One day after FAMM’s briefing, former Maryland governor Bob Ehrlich and FAMM President Julie Stewart co-authored an op-ed in The Hill calling for a congressional investigation of the OPA.
The momentum for change at the pardon attorney’s office is building, and we plan to keep pressing for reforms until they happen. Every prisoner who submits an application for clemency deserves a fair and impartial review of his case. This is what we expect of justice in America.
Senator Paul Blocks New Mandatory Minimums for Synthetic Drugs
· On May 24, the U.S. Senate approved a bill to reform the Food and Drug Administration. The bill included an amendment authored by Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) to add new synthetic drugs to the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Before Sen. Portman’s amendment was approved, however, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) successfully modified it to prevent the CSA’s harsh mandatory minimum sentencing penalty from applying to the new offenses involving the synthetic drugs.
· As FAMM President Julie Stewart wrote last month , Sen. Paul has been steadfast and vocal in his opposition to drug mandatory minimums and we appreciate his commitment. FAMM will follow the FDA bill to make sure Sen. Paul’s important language remains.
FAMM Condemns 20-Year Sentence for Marissa Alexander
· Marissa Alexander, a 31-year-old Florida mother was convicted by a jury of aggravated assault -- despite her claim that she acted to stop her abusive husband from harming her -- for firing a gun in her home. She was sentenced on May 11 to the mandatory minimum of 20 years in state prison. FAMM, which helped bring national attention to the case, condemned the excessive sentence.
· Ms. Alexander’s sentence is the latest injustice made possible by Florida’s mandatory10-20-Life gun sentencing law. After her sentencing, the former Florida senator who helped draft the law said the legislature did not intend to reach incidents like Ms. Alexander’s. We agree and are working to persuade Florida law makers that the 10-20-Life law must be reformed.
Massachusetts Committee Still Considering Mandatory Minimum Reform
· A committee of lawmakers from the Massachusetts’ House and Senate are still negotiating a criminal justice reform bill that includes major mandatory minimum sentencing reforms. FAMM and other supporters were buoyed by a May 7 Boston Globe story describing how a Republican lawmaker who previously supported mandatory sentences now opposes them.
· FAMM Massachusetts Project Director Barb Dougan keeps working to build public support for reform, authoring opinion pieces for the Fitchburg Sentinel and Enterprise and Boston Globe .
· On May 18, FAMM hosted its first live Facebook forum. FAMM Florida Project Director Greg Newburn answered members’ questions about Florida’s sentencing laws and reform, and discussed the controversial Marissa Alexander case. If you are on Facebook and not yet a friend of ours, please go to our page , “like” us, and stay tuned for future live forums.
· On May 15, the Huffington Post published Julie Stewart’s Mother’s Day op-ed , which highlighted the impact of Scott Earle’s excessive, 25-year prison term on his mother, Janet.
· Julie Stewart and FAMM’s Karen Garrison were featured in a May 11 video news story produced by Voice of America about federal mandatory minimums.
· The Crime Report published an op-ed by Julie on the Bureau of Prison’s wasteful and cruel administration of the compassionate release program.
· The U.S. Senate and House have passed two very different bills aimed at updating the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Unfortunately, both bills contain new mandatory minimum sentences. On May 16, Roll Call published an op-ed by Elizabeth Grayer, president of Legal Momentum, the nation's oldest legal defense and education fund dedicated to advancing the rights of all women and girls, arguing that the new mandatory sentencing provisions “will do more harm than good.”
· The Missouri legislature approved a bill on May 18 to reduce the disparity between powder and crack cocaine sentences from 75:1 to 19:1. Missouri’s 75:1 ratio had been the largest sentencing disparity in the country after the reform of federal crack laws in 2010.
From 2001 to 2009, the Office of the Pardon Attorney reviewed 8,600 applications for sentence commutations. They recommended just 6 for approval.