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House panel weighs reforms for clemency amid backlog of 17,000 petitions

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House panel weighs reforms for clemency amid backlog of 17,000 petitions
One lawmaker on Thursday emphasized that roughly 2 million people are imprisoned in the United States -- the highest incarceration rate of any country. File Photo by f11photo/Shutterstock

May 19 (UPI) -- A House panel convened a hearing on Thursday to examine the presidential clemency system, just days after a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the chamber demanded information on a backlog of 17,000 people who are seeking relief under the process.

The House judiciary subcommittee gathered to weigh possible reforms at a hearing that came a few weeks after President Joe Biden issued his first round of clemency.

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In opening remarks, subcommittee Chair Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, noted that Congress should encourage presidents to routinely use executive clemency powers by fixing what she called "an apparently broken system."

Lee added that presidential clemency is a useful tool to right wrongs of the criminal justice system and overcome "misguided policies that led to mass incarceration."

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Rather than address the merits of presidential clemency powers, Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., cited a spike in U.S. violent crime over the last two years and criticized Democrats for what he said was "an agenda of totally reforming the justice system."

"Now may not be the time, despite what the Biden administration and many of my colleagues believe to release drug traffickers and dealers back into our communities and neighborhoods," he said.

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Over his eight years as president, Barack Obama issued a total of 212 pardons and commuted 1,715 sentences. File Photo by Shawn Thew/UPI

Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., said her bill -- the Fix Clemency Act -- would replace the Justice Department's pardon attorney with an independent clemency board with a goal of expediting backlogged clemency petitions.

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She emphasized that roughly 2 million people are imprisoned in the United States -- the highest incarceration rate of any country -- and said they disproportionately affect Black, Latino, indigenous, disabled and LGBTQ communities.

"This is a shameful legacy. People, locked in cages throughout this nation. Real people, their families and friends, are serving their sentences alongside them," Pressley said. "I know this all too well, growing up with an incarcerated parent."

Lawmakers who favor reforming the system said that Congress must reject the "unjust status quo" and disrupt the cycle of treating trauma with trauma. Reforming the clemency process, they said, is an essential part of the solution.

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"After decades of draconian mandatory sentencing policies, far too many non-violent federal offenders, disproportionally people of color, remain in prison serving what we know now are unnecessarily harsh sentences," Rep. Gerrold Nadler, the judiciary committee chairman, said.

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Nadler added that clemency is the only remaining relief for thousands of petitoners and that the committee is obligated to evaluate and upgrade the system.

In a letter to the pardon attorney, Pressley and Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon joined Republican Reps. David Joyce and Kelly Armstrong in asking for a full report on the clemency backlog within a couple weeks.

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Biden granted clemency for 78 people during his first round last month. Former President Barack Obama issued 212 pardons and commuted 1,715 sentences during his two terms in the White House and former President Donald Trump issued 143 pardons and 94 commutations.

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Vice President Kamala Harris speaks about reproductive rights as she virtually meets with abortion providers in the South Auditorium on Thursday. Photo by Oliver Contreras/UPI | License Photo

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