The DOJ Inspector General issued an interesting report today on the DOJ’s clemency review process. For pardon supporters, the report is pretty disappointing: it shows long delays and an increasing backlog in clemency petitions. This is on top of some of the other problems with the federal pardon system, perhaps most importantly a decline in the number of pardons granted.
Reports like the DOJ’s report always make me think again about the injustice of the pardons process in D.C. (I’ve previously wondered whether pardons are a good thing on the whole, but I’m going to put that issue to the side for now.) You see, if you’re convicted of a regular ‘ole “state” conviction in the District–that is, if you’re convicted in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia–you are subject to the federal pardons process. Minor drug convictions, small thefts, and the like would likely be subject to a state system most any place else, but in D.C. the only chance for a pardon of such crimes come from the President.
A quick look at the relevant stats suggests that this system renders it far less likely that those convicted in D.C. “state court” will receive a pardon. Judging from the pardons posted on the DOJ website, not a single person convicted in D.C. Superior Court has received a pardon in the last 10 years. Compare that number to stats from Wyoming and Vermont, two states that are around the same size as the District. Vermont evidently pardoned around 50 to 60 people between 1995 and 2005. Wyoming, never known to be a state full of softies, pardoned 2 people during the same period–still more pardons than the number in the District. (The governor of Wyoming restored the rights of 10 additional people.) A very rough survey leads me to believe that state prisoners have a much better chance of getting a pardon than federal prisoners.
There’s a simple solution to the apparent problem created by the current D.C. pardon process: grant the mayor of the District of Columbia the power to pardon criminal offenses in the District. As it turns out, the mayor already has a limited power to pardon under D.C. Code § 1-301.76, which allows him to pardon minor violations not prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney. In fact, the D.C. government took the position (at least at one point) that it has the power to pardon all offenses in the District–but the DOJ simply won’t agree. The mayor could just start pardoning people and see what happens, but it would of course be easier if Congress would simply resolve the issue through legislation. Even better, that would be a further step towards complete D.C. home rule.
Given the substantial number of problems that exist in the federal-D.C. relationship, pardons are probably not an issue high on anyone’s list. Yet pardons are just another* way that D.C. residents get screwed by the uniquely federal criminal system here, and that just doesn’t seem right.
*Another example is the way D.C. prisoners are housed. Because they are technically federal prisoners, they may be shipped off to any locale in the federal prison system, far away from family and friends back in D.C. It’s not just the warm-and-fuzzies that suffer. As the Washington City Paper explained, “Many D.C. prisoners are not close enough to make court appearances. Those trying to challenge their sentences or the terms of their parole on their own aren’t likely to find updated copies of the D.C. Code in out-of-state prison law libraries. And, prisoner advocates argue, inmates who want a lawyer have a hard time finding one.” As someone who used to have a client housed hundreds of miles away, I can assure you it’s very frustrating.