Trump’s Messy Pardon Spree Left Too Many Behind. Biden Must Do Better.
Shortly after 1 a.m. EST on January 20, the White House released the final list of pardons and commutations of President Donald Trump’s term. It was the end, for better or worse, of months of feverish work by clemency advocates, federal inmates, and their families to secure clemency before Trump left office.
Some received a second shot at life. Of the 143 pardons and commutations, major newspaper headlines focused, understandably, on those of cronies, rappers, and political allies, but the list also included dozens of obscure cases of vindictive prosecutions and excessive sentences.
One of those was David Barren, whose case Reason wrote about in 2017. Barren was serving a life sentence for a nonviolent drug crime when President Barack Obama commuted his sentence. However, Obama only commuted Barren’s sentence from life to 30 years, which would have left him behind bars until he was in his early 70s.
Chris Young, whose case Reason profiled in 2018, also received clemency from Trump. Young was sentenced to life in federal prison for his role in a drug trafficking ring. Because he turned down a plea deal and exercised his constitutional right to trial, prosecutors used a federal “three strikes” law to automatically enhance his sentence to life. None of his co-defendants, including the alleged ringleader, received life.
Young’s life sentence had actually been reduced to 14 years after his lawyer, Brittany Barnett won a rare motion challenging his sentence, but he still had several years left behind bars. According to Barnett, Young was in solitary confinement under the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ COVID-19 quarantine protocols when the White House released the list.
“He was in the hole for 97 days awaiting transfer to a lower security facility, and that’s where he got the news,” Barnett says. “I was there to pick him up when he came out around 3:30, so he found out about two and a half hours before his release.”
For others, though, the early morning of January 20 was a crushing disappointment.
“On the 20th, I had to make a lot of really horrible calls to people,” says Shon Hopwood, a Georgetown Law professor and clemency advocate.
Forbes reported on the case of Luke Scarmazzo, who is serving a 22-year sentence for operating a medical marijuana dispensary in California. Clemency advocates were given strong indications that Scarmazzo would be freed, so much so that Scarmazzo had his bags packed and ready to go on January 19. His family had started preparing for his arrival. On January 20, he was still sitting in prison as President Joe Biden was inaugurated.
Likewise, Politico reported that advocates were pushing the White House to commute Rufus Rochell’s 40-year federal prison sentence for possession and conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. Rochell’s supporters included his former prison pal Conrad Black, a financier whom Trump had pardoned in 2019, but Rochell’s commutation inexplicably never materialized.
Among the words clemency advocates used to describe the last months of the Trump White House’s pardon process in interviews with Reason were “haphazard,” “chaos,” “a circus,” and “completely random.” In one commutation case from December, a woman didn’t know that her terms of supervised release had been commuted by the president until a Reason reporter texted her.
Criminal justice advocates say the Biden administration now has an opportunity to avoid the pitfalls of both the Obama and Trump White House’s clemency efforts, and they are pushing the White House to embrace a more muscula
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