Pardon System Needs Fixing, Advocates Say, but They Cringe at Trump’s Approach

Matthew Charles, left, who got out of prison in 2016, was sent back last month after a court ruled he was not eligible for early release.

WASHINGTON — For those who view the Justice Department’s pardon system as slow and sclerotic, with its backlog of more than 11,000 cases, they need only look to the case of Matthew Charles.

Mr. Charles was sentenced in 1996 to 35 years in prison for selling crack cocaine. In prison, he took college classes, became a law clerk and taught fellow inmates. He was released early, in 2016, and began rebuilding his life, volunteering at a food pantry and even falling in love.

Last month, Mr. Charles was sent back to prison after a federal court determined that he did not technically qualify for early release. His lawyers plan to ask the Justice Department to commute the rest of his sentence, and he appears to fall within its guidelines for clemency. But with nearly 9,000 petitioners for a commutation ahead of him, it could take years for federal law enforcement officials to decide his fate.

Cases like Mr. Charles’s make some criminal justice reform advocates say they would welcome a reform-minded president willing to bypass the system and more boldly wield the constitutional power to grant pardons.

Now they have one in President Trump, who has pardoned five people in his first 17 months in office and bypassed the Justice Department’s recommendation system to do so. This week, he pardoned Dinesh D’Souza, the conservative commentator who pleaded guilty in 2014 to violating campaign finance law. Mr. D’Souza responded on Twitter by claiming victory over what he viewed as a political prosecution and by mocking Preet Bharara, the former United States attorney in Manhattan whose office prosecuted the case.

But by choosing to pardon political supporters whose cases largely failed to meet the basic guidelines for pardons, Mr. Trump could turn a slow and imperfect system into an unequal and unjust one, both liberal and conservative advocates warn, in which those with fame, money or access to the president’s ear are first in line to receive clemency.

“A more regular and robust use of presidential clemency, and a willingness to go around the Justice Department process, would be applauded by many,” said Kevin Ring, a conservative public policy expert and the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “The issue is whether the president will still apply standards and meritocracy. Will he weigh the injustices and mete out justice to reflect the needs of a situation? That doesn’t seem to be the case.”

Mr. Trump has pardoned some people, like Joe Arpaio, the former Arizona sheriff convicted of criminal contempt for his campaign against undocumented immigrations, who did not serve out their entire sentences. And he said he might commute the sentence of Rod R. Blagojevich, the former Illinois governor, who in 2011 was sentenced to 14 years in prison for trying to sell the Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama.

Their cases stand in stark contrast to those of Mr. Charles, whose plight has gained national prominence, or John Knock, who in 2000 was given two life sentences plus 20 years without parole for conspiracy to launder money and distribute marijuana. While in prison, Mr. Knock has taken and taught home-building classes, served as a mentor in the Fathers Behind Bars Discussion Group and has a clean disciplinary record, according to a petition created by his sister. Mr. Obama denied his application for a commuted sentence.

The pardon office has a reputation for slow decision making, in part because of the time needed to carefully vet a case. Of the backlog of 11,203 pardon and commutation cases, only 2,876 have been filed since Mr. Trump became president.

A lack of resources has also bogged down the process, according to officials involved. The previous pardon attorney, Deborah Leff, resigned because she said she could not get the resources necessary to meet Mr. Obama’s goal to prioritize petitions that would shorten sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

Since taking office, Mr. Trump has denied 180 pardon and sentence-reduction applications sent to the Justice Department. In the pardon cases, some felons had pleaded guilty to illegal possession of a firearm. One had served time for selling methamphetamines. And in another case, a man convicted in 1995 of mail fraud, extortion and fixing union elections had also worked as a government informant.

Advocates who want to see the pardon system overhauled generally support its guidelines for granting pardons and commuting sentences. In general, felons wait five years after conviction or release to petition for a pardon. They must show evidence of rehabilitation and demonstrate that they have led responsible and productive lives after release for a significant period of time. The recommendations of officials including federal prosecutors and judges are also taken into consideration.

“A president that circumvents this system is not necessarily a bad idea,” said Shon Hopwood, Mr. Charles’s lawyer. “Legal scholars have argued for years that it’s inappropriate to have the office of the pardon attorney at the Justice Department. It asks the people who grant pardons and clemency to correct their colleagues, the prosecutors who put people in prison.”

Mr. Charles’s lawyers and the judge who allowed for his early release say that he takes responsibility for the crimes he committed.

In the late 1980s, Mr. Charles was charged with domestic violence, fled the police while being questioned and wounded a man while trying to steal his car and escape. He served his sentence and was later caught selling drugs, earning him a 35-year maximum sentence in part because of his criminal record. He is not asking for those crimes to be pardoned, only to have his sentence shortened to reflect that his behavior meets the guidelines for commutation.

“I get that what he did was really bad, but he deserves an opportunity for redemption,” said Kevin Sharp, the judge who released Mr. Charles. Mr. Sharp has since left the bench.

Mr. Hopwood said he hoped to speak to White House officials while he prepared a clemency petition for his client.

“Matthew has kept a job and taken care of himself without public assistance,” said Naomi Tharpe, Mr. Charles’s girlfriend. “By returning him to prison, he will cost taxpayers over $55,000 a year, more than the average American makes. We should utilize our tax money for a greater need.”

Both Democrats and Republicans have also called on Mr. Trump to commute Mr. Charles’s sentence, and an editorial in the conservative National Review called for a full pardon.

But doing so would have implications for the already frayed relationship between Mr. Trump and his Justice Department. Federal prosecutors have declined to recharge Mr. Charles with lesser offenses, according to Mr. Sharp, which could have paved the way for a shorter sentence overall and little to no prison time.

Granting such a request would be difficult for federal prosecutors, Mr. Sharp said, because Attorney General Jeff Sessions has instructed them to ask for the most severe penalties allowed by law, including mandatory minimum sentences.

“It is a core principle that prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense,” Mr. Sessions wrote in a memo last year. “By definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences.”

Though federal prosecutors declined to recharge Mr. Charles, they do believe he is a good candidate for a commuted sentence.

“As the government has previously noted, Charles’s evident rehabilitation is commendable, and may well provide a compelling basis for executive clemency,” Donald Q. Cochran, the United States attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee, wrote in a briefing.

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