Justice Department pardon attorney to resign at month's end

By Eric Tucker
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department’s pardon attorney is resigning at the end of the month after less than two years on the job, the department has announced.

Deborah Leff has led the department’s pardon office since April 2014, when federal officials announced a revamp of the clemency process to encourage more applications from nonviolent prison inmates. The department says it expects to name a replacement before she leaves.

“I have known President Obama for more than 20 years, and I believe his commitment to reinvigorating the clemency process — and the promise that holds for justice — can change the lives of a great many deserving people. It is essential that this groundbreaking effort move ahead expeditiously and expand,” Leff said in a statement.

The pardon attorney office is responsible for receiving applications from inmates who seek a pardon or a sentencing commutation, and then recommending good applicants for review and approval by the president. But sentencing policy advocates have long expressed concern that too few qualified candidates are being considered for clemency and that the office does not have enough resources to adequately consider the thousands of applications it’s receiving.

Leff’s departure, in the final year of the Obama administration, comes at a delicate time for a White House that has made changes to the criminal justice system a key priority and worked to overhaul
the process by which federal inmates apply for and receive clemency.

It’s also likely that the agency could receive an additional influx of applications from inmates seeking clemency consideration in the final months before Obama leaves the White House.

Amid criticism that too few positive recommendations were being forwarded to the president, the department two years ago announced a new clemency program designed to encourage more applications. Under the Clemency Initiative, inmates who meet a handful of specific criteria — including those with a nonviolent history who have spent at least 10 years behind bars — are encouraged to apply.

Obama has commuted the sentences of 184 inmates — the majority since the Clemency Initiative was announced —and pardoned 66 others. But advocates have nonetheless hoped for a much higher number as a result of the project.

The Justice Department has more than 9,000 pending petitions for clemency.

A department official said the department has already identified inmates who are potentially good candidates and prioritized them for completion before the end of the year, though the majority of applicants are not seen as viable candidates.

“The Justice Department is dedicated to the goals of the clemency initiative and is steadfastly committed to doing all it can to ensure fairness in the criminal justice system,” the department said in a statement.