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Pressley seeks reforms to clemency process

Avery Bleichfeld
Pressley seeks reforms to clemency process
U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley. COURTESY PHOTO

Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley introduced legislation in the House of Representatives Dec. 9 that would restructure the United States clemency system to allow more individuals in prison to be pardoned or have their sentences commuted.

The bill, called the Fair and Independent Experts in Clemency (FIX Clemency) Act, would create a nine-member board to review applications for clemency. The board would communicate directly with the president, who has the power to grant clemency. Currently, clemency applications are processed by the Department of Justice (DOJ).

The board would be composed of one formerly incarcerated member, one member who has served in a federal defender organization and one member serving as a representative of the DOJ. The remaining five members are intended to be individuals with connection to or expertise in clemency, behavioral health and the legal system. Those five must not have had affiliation with the DOJ for 16 years prior to their appointment. All members would be appointed by the president.

At a press conference Friday, Pressley called the current clemency system broken and inherently flawed, and said the bill would transform the clemency process to make it more just and less redundant.

“As policymakers, we have an opportunity and an obligation to reject this unjust status quo, to reimagine what public safety looks like in this country and take every measure possible to end this cycle of trauma and hurt,” Pressley said.

Currently, applications for clemency are submitted to and reviewed by the Office of the Pardon Attorney. According to data released by the DOJ, more than 15,000 clemency petitions are currently pending.

Pressley said the board created under the bill would help the process move more quickly. Under the FIX Act, the board would be required to review a petition within 18 months.

“Our bill makes the clemency process one that is transparent and independent. It would streamline the process, making it easier for the president to use his clemency authority to clear this unjust backlog,” she said. “People’s lives hang in the balance.”

Congresswoman Cori Bush from Missouri, who co-sponsored the legislation, said at the press conference that the existing carceral system and clemency process makes people “disappear.” She said the FIX Act would offer a solution.

“We’ve disappeared people — mothers, fathers, sons, daughters — and it’s a disgrace,” Bush said. “We are supposed to be better. I’d love to say we are better — we’re supposed to be better. We have not shown that yet.”

Catherine Sevcenko, senior legal counsel for the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, said she thinks the current system fails to function properly.

“The Supreme Court has repeatedly said that [clemency] is the solution to miscarriages of justice that the legal system can’t fix,” Sevcenko said at the press conference. “They say it is the fail-safe in our criminal justice system. So how is this so-called fail-safe working? It’s not. This emergency brake does nothing to stop the machinery of justice that crushes people and their families.”

Supporters of the legislation said it would especially help those in communities of color who are in the carceral system in the United States at a higher rate.

According to data from the Bureau of Prisons, about 38% of inmates in federal prisons are Black. According to the 2020 census, only about 14.2% of the U.S. population is Black.

“We must either acknowledge that the carceral system is racist, or we must admit that we believe Black and Brown people are more criminal,” said Cynthia Roseberry, deputy director of policy at the ACLU, at the press conference.

Roseberry said she thinks the FIX Clemency Act would serve as a first step to address the impacts of racism on the criminal justice system.

“It reflects an evolution in thinking about the criminal legal system, and it removes the secrecy of whose thumb is tipping the scale when the balance is made in the application for clemency,” Roseberry said.

At the conference, Pressley said she expects the bill to receive bipartisan support, saying the issues behind many convictions go beyond party lines.

“There are many people who are incarcerated because we criminalize poverty, because we criminalize substance use disorder, because we criminalize mental health,” Pressley said. “Those are transcendent issues — urban, rural, suburban — that have nothing to do whether or not you have a ‘D’ or an ‘R’ in front of your name.”

As of Monday, the 18 co-sponsors on the bill were all Democrats.

At the press conference, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said the constitutional framers were imperfect.

“They didn’t promise a perfect country; however, they did promise a march toward a more perfect union, and that’s what the FIX Clemency Act represents — trying to perfect a system of justice that is imperfect right now,” Jeffries said.