DAVID GREENE, HOST:
A former financier jailed for insider trading, a former police commissioner who served time for lying about a bribe he took and a former governor locked up for trying to sell Barack Obama's vacant U.S. Senate seat - those are just three of the 11 people granted clemency by President Trump yesterday. Those commutations and pardons are raising questions about how the president is wielding his pardon powers and who else might be granted clemency as we go further along.
Rachel Barkow is an expert on clemency. She served as a member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission. She is a professor at New York University's School of Law. Professor, thanks for giving us some time this morning.
RACHEL BARKOW: Oh, thank you. Good morning.
GREENE: So what should we take from this announcement from the president yesterday and these 11 decisions?
BARKOW: Well, I think a couple things. One is it seems that the pardon process right now basically just goes through the president directly. There is no other formal way of getting your application viewed. You know, typically, you'd have someone file something with the Department of Justice. It would go through many layers of review. And instead, what we're seeing now is you have to catch the direct eye of the president to get a grant. So it's a kind of very informal personal process that's just driven by him.
And then the second thing is, overwhelmingly, the people who have received clemency from President Trump are either wealthy or politically connected in some way. There's a few people who don't fit that bill, but they're really a small fraction of the number of people who've gotten clemency grants from him.
GREENE: So I think of someone like Alice Marie Johnson, I mean, an African American woman who served more than 20 years in prison for drug offenses. I mean, she is someone who you would not put in the category of politically connected and rich and powerful, I would assume.
BARKOW: Correct, although she did have the backing of Kim Kardashian, and that's how she came to President Trump's attention. So although, you know, she herself, you know, didn't have a lifetime of riches and connections, her story was so compelling that Kim Kardashian saw it and really felt moved to urge President Trump to give the grant. But, you know, most people don't have that luxury of having a celebrity champion their case.
GREENE: What makes you see this as more of a personal process for President Trump compared to past presidents?
BARKOW: Well, a couple of things. For starters, there's about 14,000 pending applications for clemency at the Department of Justice right now. And to my knowledge, these applications, for the most part, didn't go through that process at all. So these are cases that either people made personal appeals to him - friends of the president, you know, kind of well-heeled types that have connections to get his ear - or they were featured on Fox a lot.
And so these seem to be the kind of grants that really are just about whether or not they somehow caught the president's eye. But there's no evidence at all that they went through any other kind of normal, typical process that we would see in these cases.
GREENE: I mean, I just think about, on his last day in office, Bill Clinton infamously pardoned Marc Rich, former financier convicted of major tax evasion - took a lot of criticism for that. I mean, is - to what extent is what Trump is doing truly remarkable compared to predecessors?
BARKOW: Well, a couple differences. So one is, you know, usually when you see these more kind of controversial pardons, they are when someone's on their way out the door. So it is interesting that he's doing it before an election, you know, to have an opportunity for voters to weigh in. So I think it does show that he's pretty confident that his voters are going to stick with him no matter what he does, even if it's showing that he's, you know, quite willing to give breaks to some of the wealthiest among us.
GREENE: Oh, previous presidents have sort of thought, like, if I'm going to do this, I better do it when I don't have to face voters ever again.
BARKOW: Exactly. So that's unusual that this is happening now, when he still could be held accountable for it. And I think the other thing to look at is his kind of total package of grants. You know, very few so far in his presidency - you know, about 35 total, and actually, two of them both got commutations and pardoned, so, you know, a very small number of people, less than three dozen. And most of that bulk are these kind of connected, high-profile kinds of cases, whereas, you know, Bill Clinton had more of the kind of regular kind of cases, I would say, and then kind of through in his high-profile connections at the end.
So, you know, you could kind of look at the overall set of grants that are being given. But you're right - the pardon power has been abused by others in the past, and we've definitely have seen a long history of people with connections getting it. But I hope that doesn't eclipse the fact that it's a really necessary device because we have thousands and thousands of people who deserve to get their sentences reduced who are in federal prison. And we don't have parole, so the only mechanism they have is to get a clemency grant from the president.
And, you know, the real tragedy of this is it's going for the people who need it the least. And the people who need it the most are just getting ignored, and they really don't have an avenue to get their applications looked at.
GREENE: Oh, I see. So one concern you have here is that this - the decisions President Trump makes could tarnish a process that you see real value in. Rachel Barkow is a professor at New York University's School of Law, an expert on clemency. Thanks so much for your insight this morning. We appreciate it.
BARKOW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.