Today, the Department of Justice outlined expanded criteria that could allow prisoners convicted of non-violent crimes to win early release from prison. Under the new initiative, the Office of the Pardon Attorney will fast-track commutation applications from inmates who have served more than 10 years for non-violent offenses and who were well-behaved while imprisoned.
As part of the shift, the department is replacing Pardon Attorney Ronald Rodgers. Two years ago, we reported that Rodgershad failed to provide critical information to the White House in urging denial of a commutation for Clarence Aaron, a model prisoner who served nearly 20 years for a small role in a drug deal.
Obama’s commutation reforms cheered prisoners’ rights advocates, who say they are a necessary corrective to an unfair sentencing regime. But the new initiatives, which appear to be aimed at commutations, don’t address other problems identified in our reporting on presidential clemency.
Here’s three areas the new initiative doesn’t address:
1. Whether Outgoing Pardon Attorney Ronald Rodgers Was Disciplined
Aaron was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences for abetting a drug conspiracy – though he had not sold, bought, or supplied the cocaine, and he had no prior criminal convictions. Though he seemed like a model candidate for early release, President Bush denied his petition in December 2008.
Rodgers had misrepresented some key facts about Aaron’s case in his report to the White House. As we reported, both the U.S. attorney for the South District of Alabama and Aaron’s sentencing judge had supported Aaron’s petition. Instead, Rodgers inaccurately informed the White House that the U.S. attorney thought the request was “about 10 years premature.”
In December 2012, the Justice Department’s inspector general said Rodgers’ conduct “fell substantially short of the high standards expected of Department of Justice employees and the duty he owed the President.” In a report, the IG said Justice should review “whether administrative action is appropriate.”
Rodgers has remained in his position until today, when Deputy Attorney General James Cole announced that Rodgers would be replaced by Deborah Leff, the Acting Senior Counselor for Access to Justice. After a transition, Rodgers will take on “another role” in the agency, a Justice Department news release said.
“Over the past several years, Ron has performed admirably in what is a very tough job,” Cole said. “He has demonstrated dedication and integrity in his work on pardons and commutations.”
Asked by a reporter if Rodgers’ departure was related to the inspector general report, Cole said it’s typical for senior officials to change positions within the department. “Ron has expressed some desire for a while to move on, as the senior executive service usually does,” he said.
A spokeswoman from the department was unable to confirm whether Rodgers had been disciplined for his role in the Aaron case. “We can’t comment on personnel matters given Privacy Act concerns,” she said.