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 05,06, 2022View in browser

A number of clemency advocates privately met with President JOE BIDEN’s new pardon attorney last week, a rare occurrence that left them cautiously optimistic about forthcoming changes to a strained system. Amy Povah & Weldon Angelos.

“This is the most significant event that has occurred on this subject in a long time because this is somebody that's actually going to get things done,” WELDON ANGELOS, founder of the Weldon Project, said of the meeting with the pardon attorney, ELIZABETH OYER. “Typically the pardon attorney is hostile to people like myself, and applicants.”

But for all the hope of possible changes in how the government will handle clemencies and pardons, the likelihood that Biden grants any more this year to the (roughly) 2,700 non-violent cannabis offenders now in federal prison remains slim. Those who spoke to Oyer described it as an “open dialogue” that served as more than just a typical listening session. 

Oyer “expressed concern about some of the things that concern all of us, which is that once the petitions go over to [Department of Justice], will prosecutors have the loudest voice?” said AMY POVAH, founder of CAN-DO, a group advocating for more aggressive clemency. “There’s goodwill toward wanting to be very fair and unbiased with the process.”

Last month, Biden issued the first clemencies of his presidency, granting 75 and three pardons. The recipients primarily consisted of already-vetted candidates under the CARES Act program, which has removed people with serious health conditions from prison during the pandemic. Nine of those 78 were people with marijuana convictions.

That action put Biden ahead of his predecessors when it comes to clemencies granted at this point in their presidencies. But Biden also faces a backlog of 18,000 petitions that built up throughout prior administrations. There is also concern about the pace at which the clemencies will be implemented.

A White House official said Biden has moved quickly but noted that last month’s actions were just the first tranche. Biden and his team will continue reviewing petitions from non-violent drug offenders for additional grants of clemency, the official said.

Some of those who just received clemency will be released from incarceration this coming summer. But many others will continue to wait a year or more for their sentences to formally end. It’s a timeline that sets their release after the midterm elections, in which vulnerable Democrats are fending off attacks over calls by some in their party to defund the police. And the suspicion among activists is that lawmakers of Biden’s generation don’t want a Willie Horton-like situation on their hands, a reference to the infamous race-baiting ads run by then-GOP nominee GEORGE H.W. BUSH against Democrat MICHAEL DUKAKIS for supporting the temporary prison release program Horton was in when he stabbed a man and raped a woman.

“Is this how all the clemencies are going to be — with a year stipulation on there? … That's not common,” said Povah, who later added, “I just don't think the public is going to lose their mind if maybe there's like a minor infraction.”

Povah encouraged Biden to not just expedite the clemencies but to expand the universe of those who will receive them. “I sure hope marijuana is the next batch, plus other CARES Act people who weren't on the list,“ she said, noting that prisoners with cannabis related offenses have been overlooked under prior administrations.

MARK OSLER, a former federal prosecutor who also recently met with Oyer, praised the administration’s recent clemency action. By comparison, former President DONALD TRUMP went around the Justice Department, consulting allies when determining clemencies and pardons that rewarded loyalty and benefited his personal political interests.

But Osler also viewed Biden’s pace as cautious.

“The disappointment of course is that it wasn't more extensive and we don't really have guidance as to what's coming next and what their areas of focus are going to be,” said Osler, questioning which petitioners will be prioritized and when. “Hopefully they're cognizant of the fact that time proceeds at the same pace inside prison as it does outside.”

Ultimately, Angelos said, 2023 needs to be a year of greater action, even if Biden’s current pace is besting his predecessors’.

“We have a war; there's inflation under the pandemic and so we're hoping that this time next year after things start to mellow down, I think we're gonna start to see a little more action here,” said Angelos. “And, based on our conversation, we strongly believe that President Biden will honor his campaign pledge with regard to the marijuana cases.”


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