’Tis the season of good will and of grace — or so it is said.
It is a time when many await the precious gift of a new beginning — a fresh start in a new year.
Some 16,000 of those who wait for that fresh start, who wait for the gift of clemency, are federal prisoners caught up in a maze of bureaucracy, years-long backlogs, and a system so rife with conflicts that it begs for reform.
Reform was what was promised in the Democratic Party’s own platform. Clemency was what was promised by President Biden for the thousands of federal inmates released to home confinement during the pandemic, but who remain in bureaucratic limbo.
And reform is what Massachusetts Representative Ayanna Pressley is proposing in the FIX Clemency Act, recently filed with Representatives Cori Bush of Missouri and Hakeem Jeffries of New York.
“Our current clemency system is broken,” Pressley said at a news conference announcing the filing of the bill. “It is inherently flawed, severely burdensome, and deprives thousands of the chance of redemption and justice.”
Unlike state systems — and Massachusetts is certainly no role model of efficiency or transparency either — the federal clemency system begins within the bowels of the Department of Justice. Yes, that would be the very same Justice Department largely responsible for the prisoner being behind bars in the first place. And while the Constitution ultimately vests the power of clemency with the president, it is the rather obscure Office of the Pardon Attorney, within DOJ, that holds the real power to deliver that Golden Ticket to freedom.
“Redundant levels of scrutiny by DOJ staff . . . can unilaterally obstruct a clemency application from reaching the president,” Pressley said.
She called the current system both a “policy failure” and “a moral failure,” but added that for her the issue is also personal.
“Growing up with an incarcerated parent, I can only imagine how different my own childhood would have been if my father was given the help that he so desperately needed and deserved,” she said.
Under her bill, an independent nine-member US Clemency Board, appointed by the president, would replace the Office of the Pardon Attorney. Now, as we have seen at the state level, boards generally reflect the values of the people who appoint them. In Massachusetts, that has meant the Advisory Board of Pardons has approved and sent only two clemency petitions up to Governor Charlie Baker during his seven years in office — both remain on his desk at this time. But in Pennsylvania, a similar board has sent dozens of commutations to the desk of Governor Tom Wolf, who has approved nearly all of them.
However, the board proposed by the FIX bill does have some guardrails. It would have to include a formerly incarcerated person, an individual directly impacted by crime, a member of a federal defender organization, and a representative of the Justice Department along with those “possessing significant experience with the criminal legal system, clemency, behavioral health, or reentry services.”
The board would be required to act on petitions within 18 months, keep statistics on petitions granted and rejected, and report annually to Congress on those petitions — in addition to making its recommendations to the president.
Of course, a legislative fix — as valuable as that may be — is the long way around in a deeply divided Congress that has found little on which it can agree these days. It can’t provide timely help to those 16,000 people waiting for an answer now.
To date, the only pardons issued by President Biden have been for Peanut Butter and Jelly, the Thanksgiving turkeys. And while that’s not unusual during the first year of an administration — after all, even the current Pardon Attorney is a holdover serving in an “acting” capacity — this is an administration that pledged to reduce incarceration.
And as recently as September, an administration spokesman said the president was “exploring the use of his clemency power” for those nonviolent offenders released by the Bureau of Prisons to home confinement in the spring of 2020 as COVID-19 hit the prison system. Of the nearly 8,000 remaining in home confinement, some 3,000 face re-incarceration when the current emergency ends. This week, days before Christmas, the Justice Department issued a ruling allowing the Bureau of Prisons to exercise its discretion and avoid a “blanket, one-size-fits-all policy.”
However, for some 10,000 others who have filed clemency petitions but remain behind bars, there is only the endless wait and no clear end in sight.
“Behind every application is an individual, an individual connected to a family, a family that’s a part of a community,” Pressley told NPR. “So people’s lives are quite literally hanging in the balance.”
They are indeed. And while Congress ponders a long-term solution, the president could surely give his own Justice Department some marching orders to speed up a process that has been allowed to languish for far too long.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.