In the wake of reports about the infrequent and discriminatory use of the presidential clemency power, the Department of Justice’s watchdog agency has determined that the U.S. Pardon Attorney withheld relevant information in recommending against a shorter prison sentence for one prominent applicant.
Clarence Aaron, whose triple life sentence for his ancillary role in a drug deal has become emblematic of unjust drug sentencing, was denied requests for a shorter sentence twice. After Aaron’s case was highlighted in an extensive series on the president’s scant use of his constitutional power to both revoke convictions (a pardon), and to shorten sentences (a commutation), the Justice Department’s Inspector General said it would review the decision-making process.
In its report released this week, the IG found that Pardon Attorney Ronald L. Rodgers did not clearly disclose that Aaron’s application for a shorter sentence was supported by both the judge who sentenced him and the U.S. attorney in the jurisdiction that prosecuted him. As with so many individuals convicted of drug crimes, the judge presiding over the case was powerless to shorten Rodgers’ sentence due to mandatory minimums and sentencing guidelines. Kenneth Lee, who served as associate White House counsel then, said that if he had known the views of the prosecutor, he would have recommended Aaron’s immediate release. The report concluded that Rodgers engaged in “conduct that fell substantially short of the high standards expected of Department of Justice employees and the duty he owed the President of the United States.”
President Obama, whose office relies heavily on the Office of the Pardons Attorney for recommendations on clemency, has not pardoned a single person nor commuted a single sentence this year. In her latest report on this issue, ProPublica’s Dafna Linzer explains:
The pardons office has come under increased scrutiny in the last year since ProPublica and The Washington Post began reporting on race disparity in the selection of pardon recipients  and the handling of the Aaron case . ProPublica’s study showed that white applicants have been nearly four times as likely as minorities to be pardoned. Aaron is African American. The review also showed that Obama has granted clemency at a lower rate than any modern president .
Rodgers, a career civil servant and former military judge, took over the pardons office in 2008. Despite calls for his resignation, he has remained in office. Nearly all pardon recipients are preselected by Rodgers and he personally reviews each application from federal inmates seeking early release. Under his leadership, denial recommendations have soared while pardons have been rarely granted.
The series initiated last year by Linzer shined light on an aspect of the justice system that typically receives scant attention outside of criminal justice circles. Linzer’s dogged investigatory work and her alarming findings about the numbers and types of people being denied clemency were the direct cause of the IG’s investigation, as were the White House’s request that the Pardon Attorney reconsider Aaron’s application and the DOJ’s call for a study of presidential pardons. The series demonstrates the power of journalist yeoman’s work to move the ball on little-noticed policy areas crucial to a just legal system. Its findings dictate even greater action, including fundamental reform to the Office of the Pardon Attorney.