Pardon attorney steps down as part of drug-offender clemency push

Deputy Attorney General James Cole speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, Wednesday, April 23, 2014. Cole announced the new standards that will be considered in deciding whether to recommend clemency for certain non-violent drug prisoners. Wednesday's announcement is part of an ongoing effort to trim the nation’s prison population and help convicts who were given what the Obama administration says were unduly harsh sentences for drug crimes. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Controversial Pardon Attorney Ronald Rodgers is stepping down from his post and will be replaced by a former journalist and nonprofit executive as part of a sweeping overhaul of the federal clemency process.

Deborah Leff, whose previous post at the Justice Department involved increasing access to lawyers for poor defendants, will take over from Rodgers to shepherd through the thousands of new clemency petitions from nonviolent federal inmates hoping to receive a commutation under the new program.

The change in leadership represents a new era for the pardon process, as the president prepares to shift from granting the fewest pardons of any modern president in his first term to potentially granting clemency to hundreds or even thousands of nonviolent drug offenders.

Under the new initiative announced Wednesday, prison reform advocates will help the Justice Department scour federal prisons for inmates who were sentenced under now-defunct draconian laws that put people away for decades for nonviolent crimes like drug dealing. (Many of those laws and policies have been repealed in the past few years because of a bipartisan shift away from "tough on crime," given the country’s massive and budget-busting prison population.) To qualify, prisoners must have already served 10 years of their sentence for a nonviolent crime that would have been prosecuted or sentenced differently today. They must also have no significant ties to larger crime organizations, have a good record in prison, and be free of a lengthy criminal record aside from the crime they're currently serving time for.

"There are still too many people in federal prison who were sentenced under the old regime — and who, as a result, will have to spend far more time in prison than they would if sentenced today for exactly the same crime," Attorney General Eric Holder said Monday. "This is simply not right."

As many as 23,000 prisoners could qualify for Clemency Project 2014, according to an internal Justice Department estimate of how many inmates have served more than 10 years for a nonviolent crime. But it’s very unlikely the president would grant that many commutations. Such a grant would dwarf previous presidents' pardon records and raise accusations of a misuse of the pardon power. A senior administration official told Yahoo News the clemency number would most likely be in the hundreds, but could reach the thousands — still a stunning number not seen since President Gerald Ford's amnesty for Vietnam-era draft dodgers.

Yahoo News first reported Monday that Rodgers would step down as part of the new clemency initiative. Rodgers, a former prosecutor and military judge, was censured in 2012 in an internal watchdog report for misrepresenting the facts of a commutation request from a nonviolent drug offender to the White House. At the end of his first term, the president became frustrated with how few clemency petitions Rodgers' office was approving, and demanded change.

Advocates see the replacement of Rodgers as a sign of just how serious the president and Justice Department are about significantly increasing his use of his pardon power. By the end of his first term, Obama had pardoned fewer people than any modern president.

"The appointment of Deborah Leff demonstrates Department of Justice's commitment to overhauling the Pardon Office and getting recommendations in much higher numbers over to the White House," said Vanita Gupta, the deputy legal director of the ACLU.

The Justice Department is adding dozens of temporary staff to help process the influx of applications. The advocates in charge of Clemency Project 2014 will also be in charge of soliciting and organizing thousands of volunteer lawyers to help federal prisoners prepare their clemency applications pro bono.

"All of that is a real demonstration of the seriousness and unprecedented nature of this effort," Gupta said.

Deputy Attorney General Jim Cole said in a speech Wednesday morning that the expected commutations are a way to restore fairness to the criminal justice system, but do not exonerate prisoners. "These older, stringent punishments that are out of line with sentences imposed under today's laws erode people's confidence in our criminal justice system," Cole said. "I am confident that this initiative will go far to promote the most fundamental of American ideals — equal justice under law."

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