Candidate Amy Klobuchar Wants To Reform Clemency

By Kelly Burch 05/02/19

“The next president owes it to the people of this country to leave no one behind,” Klobuchar wrote in an op-ed.

Candidate Amy Klobuchar

Presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar, a U.S. Senator from Minnesota, wants to streamline the federal government’s clemency process, addressing criminal justice reform and helping free thousands of people who are serving long sentences for non-violent drug crimes. 

“The next president owes it to the people of this country to leave no one behind,” Klobuchar wrote in an op-ed for CNN published in April. “Reforming the presidential pardon system through the creation of a clemency advisory board and the addition of a dedicated, criminal justice reform adviser to the White House would move us one step closer to an America that's as good as its promise.”

Klobuchar's plan would rely on executive action to establish a clemency advisory board. This body would consider clemency cases and make recommendations to the president on whether to grant clemency. 

Today, clemency applications need to go through a long seven-step process, law professor and former federal prosecutor Mark Osler told Vox

“The problem with the system we’ve got now is it’s vertical,” he said. “You got one person making a decision, passing it on to the next person who makes a decision, passing it on to another person who makes a decision. And there’s seven levels of review like that.”

In addition to being a faster process, Klobuchar’s advisory board would also be entirely separate from the Department of Justice, which handles most of the clemency application process today in what Osler said is a conflict of interest. 

“It’s hard to imagine a stronger conflict of interest than leaving the idea of clemency to the people who had asked for the sentences in the first place,” he said. “And I say that as someone who was a prosecutor… What does it feel like to me to have someone tell me that I put someone in prison for too long? I’m going to be defensive about that, probably.”

Klobuchar’s staff said the clemency board would be bipartisan and comprised of people from a variety of different backgrounds, including law enforcement, prison reform and social justice. Her clemency campaign would focus mostly on non-violent offenders who have shown they’ve been rehabilitated during prison, her staff said. 

Twelve percent of prisoners in the United States are in federal prison, and half of those are drug offenders, Vox reported. 

Osler said that taking a strong stand on clemency would also change how prosecutors pursue drug cases that haven’t yet been sentenced. 

“Clemency is a way that the president can signal to prosecutors where she is at,” he said. “When President Obama started to grant clemency to narcotics traffickers serving very long sentences, it sent a signal to prosecutors that this is not what we want to do. While clemency doesn’t directly affect, for example, statutes, it is important signaling to how prosecutors use their discretion. And how prosecutors use their discretion is kind of the whole ball game.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.