When Larry Kupers went to work for the Justice Department in 2014, he didn’t see it as joining the enemy, even though he’s spent his career as a federal and public defender fighting against attorneys who worked for the agency. By working as a lawyer in the Department of Justice during the Obama administration— specifically, in its Office of the Pardon Attorney — Kupers had the opportunity to significantly reform the process by which presidents grant clemency to convicted criminals.
But Kupers’ outlook changed quickly once Trump came into office. Under the current administration, the agency process for recommending and vetting parsons has been largely jettisoned in favor of a top-down approach run by the Executive Office of the President, often at the direction of Trump himself. As a result, while people like Rod Blagojevich who have powerful administration allies now get sprung early from prison, hundreds of thousands of less-well-connected inmates hoping for a second chance find their petitions languishing. For Kupers, that dissonance proved too much: In 2018, while running the pardon office, he decided to leave the DOJ. Kupers told GEN about the current turmoil in the pardon office.
In the original conception of the presidential pardon power that Alexander Hamilton laid out in The Federalist Papers, he gave two reasons for clemency. One was because of the sometimes over-severity of criminal punishment. But the second one was for reconciliation. For example, George Washington pardoned a lot of the rebels of the Whiskey Rebellion even though they engaged in an armed rebellion against the United States.
Commutation is the more difficult grant of clemency, because with a pardon, you’re waiting until the person has served his or her sentence and has been in the community at least five years, and then deciding whether they should have certain civil rights restored. So a pardon is a much safer bet for a president because here’s somebody who’s been in the community for at least five years without doing anything wrong.
There are thousands of federal…