Justice Dept Ignored Pardon Applications to Prioritize Obama’s Clemency Push, Former Official Says

Loretta Lynch
Loretta Lynch / AP
March 29, 2016

The Justice Department has disregarded requests for presidential pardons to refocus efforts on the Obama administration’s push to commute the sentences of nonviolent felons, a former federal official revealed in her resignation letter.

Former pardon attorney Deborah Leff detailed a dysfunctional, corrupt clemency process under the direction of the White House in a letter obtained Monday by USA Today through a Freedom of Information Act request.

USA Today reported:

Her resignation letter suggests a broken and bureaucratic process at odds with President Obama’s own aim to exercise his pardon power "more aggressively" in the final months of his presidency. Leff wrote that the administration’s focus on the clemency initiative at the expense of traditional pardons and commutations "means that the requests of thousands of petitioners seeking justice will lie unheard."

Leff also said that contrary to traditional procedure, she was refused "all access to the White House Counsel’s Office," hindering her ability to make final recommendations to the president before he announces the verdict of a pardon request.

"I believe that prior to making the serious and complex decisions underlying clemency, it is important for the president to have a full set of views," she wrote.

Leff was appointed by President Obama in April 2014 and served in the position for less than two years after resigning in January.

The pardon attorney’s office is tasked with reviewing all requests for pardons and sentence commutations to advise the president on clemency decisions. USA Today noted that little is known publicly about the pardon process because of case sensitivity, allowing Leff’s letter to provide "a rare glimpse" into the administration’s clemency procedures.

In 2014, the Obama administration announced an initiative aimed at encouraging low-level drug offenders to apply for clemency in an effort to cut the country’s booming prison population.

Obama made waves in 2015 through his criminal justice reform efforts, including his decision to commute sentences for 46 prisoners in July.

While reform efforts gained bipartisan momentum in Congress last year, lawmakers have since failed to advance legislation that would overhaul the nation’s criminal justice system.