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New Pardon Chief In Obama Justice Department Inherits A Huge Backlog

Prosecutor Robert Zauzmer (left) from the U.S. attorney's office in Philadelphia will head up the Justice Department's effort on pardons.
Brad Bower
Prosecutor Robert Zauzmer (left) from the U.S. attorney's office in Philadelphia will head up the Justice Department's effort on pardons.

The Justice Department has named a veteran prosecutor from Philadelphia as the new leader of its pardon office, which is trying to review more than 9,000 petitions in the final year of the Obama presidency.

Robert Zauzmer, 55, has worked since 1990 at the U.S. attorney's office in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Justice Department leaders said Zauzmer represented a "natural choice" for the pardon job, in part because of his experience training prosecutors all over the country in how to evaluate prisoners' requests for early release.

"There were many occasions over the years where I saw these sentences of 20, 30 years, life imprisonment imposed on low-level offenders based on mandatory sentencing laws that troubled me," Zauzmer told NPR in an interview this week.

"Prosecutors are very knowledgeable about these cases and about the laws and about the need to do justice," he added. "They are passionate about this, and they are dedicated to doing the right thing and correcting any erroneous sentences that need to be corrected, and I am equally passionate about it."

His first task? Making sure that thousands of prisoner petitions are reviewed and worthy candidates are forwarded to the White House for action before the end of the Obama presidency, whether the applications come from trained lawyers or from inmates themselves.

"We're going to consider every petition," he said.

Zauzmer declined to offer a deadline but said stacks of petitions are "not going to be left on my table."

"I need to make sure that every system is in place that's necessary to review every case and make sure everybody gets a fair shake," Zauzmer said. "There's a lot to do, but we have an excellent staff there, and I'm going to give it everything I have."

Zauzmer inherits an office that has been plagued by challenges with resources, at a sensitive time toward the end of a presidency. His predecessor as pardon attorney, Deborah Leff, resigned last month. Leff said in a written statement at the time that the process "can change the lives of a great many deserving people" and that "it is essential that this ground breaking effort move ahead expeditiously and expand."

Four sources familiar with her departure said Leff had repeatedly advocated for better staffing for the office, which currently employs a dozen lawyers. Leff had asked department leaders to move more lawyers to help with an influx of inmate applications, but she felt she had made little headway since her start in April 2014.

Her appointment back then coincided with the launch of an Obama administration effort to re-examine punitive sentences for drug criminals who had served at least 10 years in prison and had an otherwise clean record. At the time, then-Deputy Attorney General James Cole said he would be "personally involved in ensuring the pardon attorney's office has the resources needed to make timely and effective recommendations to the president."

Spokeswoman Emily Pierce said the Justice Department had dedicated "significant resources to the Office of Pardon Attorney and the president's clemency priorities." Department leaders recently told Congress they want to use some federal money to double the staff.

"These are not easy questions that are being addressed, and because of that it does take an investment of time and resources," said University of St. Thomas law professor Mark Osler. "It's not the person; it's the process, and this administration has to realize that."

Osler, who studies clemency, said a wide-scale effort under President Gerald Ford to examine the cases of Vietnam-era draft dodgers at its peak employed 600 people to analyze cases. More than 14,000 applications were ultimately granted back then, Osler said. But the high-profile initiative to revisit drug crime sentences under President Obama is on track to yield just a tiny fraction of those numbers, he added.

"Right now we have far fewer people, working in a much less efficient process," Osler said.

Three of the sources said another factor in Leff's departure was a clash over whether the White House would receive information about the views of career lawyers in the Justice Department pardon office. The process works like this: Under the rules, all of the pardon attorney recommendations are passed to the deputy attorney general, who makes her own call. The petitions then go on to the White House for final review and action.

"I think the White House and the president are very committed to commutations," said Julie Stewart, who argues for sentencing reductions at the nonprofit Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "I worry they're not getting as many as they'd like to and they hoped they would when they launched this initiative."

She added: "I do believe the White House should have the final say and the greatest impact on whether or not someone gets out and I don't know that that's happening right now."

Advocates who closely follow the clemency process said it will need to kick into overdrive soon, lest some inmates applying under the program for drug criminals, and many others who argue they deserve to leave prison early, be left on the table for the next administration to consider. With the clock ticking, the advocates say, the White House should consider a "mass clemency" for the approximately 4,800 people convicted of crack cocaine offenses who would be punished far less harshly than the laws on the books today.

"After World War I, after World War II, after the Korean War, and what President Ford did, after the Vietnam War, was categorically address people who had been oversentenced," Osler said. "That is a part of our history and the same thing should be done after this war, the war on drugs."

But in the interview, the new acting pardon attorney cast some doubt on the idea of a mass clemency.

"So I don't think we will ever get to a point where we will say, let's just take this basket of people and do mass clemency," Zauzmer said. "We will look at these cases individually to make sure that we're not creating an undue risk to public safety, and that requires an individual assessment."

And Zauzmer pointed out that he is quite familiar with those case-by-case looks. He said the White House had already shortened the prison terms of six inmates from his district in Pennsylvania, including the case of David Padilla, who had been serving life behind bars.

"He was a classic example of someone who committed crimes, did bad things, admits it, has served almost 20 years in prison and should not be serving a life sentence," he said. "A life sentence does not possibly match the kind of criminal conduct that he was involved in."

Brett Sweitzer, Zauzmer's counterpart in the federal defender's office in Philadelphia, called Zauzmer "smart and tireless" and said he has managerial skills that will come in handy in the new role.

"I've been told there's interest in speeding up the clemency initiative and making sure nobody is left behind who should be in the boat," Sweitzer said. "Now, how big the administration's boat is? I can't speak to that. But I think Bob will be dedicated to carrying out the vision that the administration is setting."

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Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.