- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 6, 2016

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton is proposing legislation that would allow the District’s mayor to grant clemency to local convicts, just as the governors of states do.

Citing home rule, Ms. Norton said the District should have final authority over its own criminal justice system, and noted an earlier bill she has filed would authorize the city to prosecute all local crimes.

In the nation’s capital, only the president of the United States can exercise clemency — which includes pardons, reprieves and commutations of sentences — over local convicts.

“All that needs to be said is that the District, like states, should have full control of its local criminal justice system, the most basic responsibility of local government, including clemency, following a conviction in local courts under local law,” said Ms. Norton, the District’s nonvoting representative in Congress.

“A conviction for which clemency would be granted is local D.C. law, enacted by the D.C. Council, not federal law,” the Democratic delegate said.

Mrs. Norton said her bill is an “important home-rule advancement,” but its passage in the Republican-controlled Congress remains to be seen.

Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which oversees the District, had no comment on Mrs. Norton’s legislation.

Under the 1973 Home Rule Act, Congress reviews legislation approved by the D.C. Council and monitors the city’s budget.

Christina Harper, a spokeswoman for D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, hailed the Norton bill as another step forward in the District’s quest for statehood.

“Legislation, like the clemency bill, that puts the District on the path closer to the larger goal of local autonomy and statehood, Mayor Bowser embraces,” Ms. Harper said.

Legal scholars said that local authorities should have the power to grant clemency to violators of local laws.

“I think it’s about time and I think it would be an extremely important and long-overdue change,” Abbe Smith, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center. “It’s a very important power vested in an executive to give mercy.”

Ms. Smith, who also runs the Criminal Defense and Prisoner Advocacy Clinic at Georgetown University, said the hurdles are too great for convicts in the District applying to the president for clemency.

“Very few D.C. prisoners have ever received the benefit of clemency,” she said. “There should be power vested locally. People of the District are not well served by clemency only under the president.”

According to Justice Department records, since 2000 only three people convicted in the District have received clemency. One received a pardon and two were granted commutation of their sentences. Alfred Mack, who was convicted in 1982 on charges of unlawful distribution of heroin was granted a pardon by President Obama in 2013.  Mr. Obama in 2015 commuted the sentence of Jerome Jackson, who was convicted of distributing cocaine. And in 2007, President George W. Bush commuted the sentence of Lewis Libby, who was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in relation to leaking the name of covert Central Intelligence Agency Valerie Plame Wilson.

Georgetown law professor Paul Rothstein echoed Ms. Smith’s reasoning, saying the Norton legislation would bring the District in accord with the power granted to governors.

“Local government is more in touch with local conditions,” Mr. Rothstein said. “They know what is just under local conditions.”

The move to grant clemency power to the D.C. mayor would be an important push toward the city’s autonomy, he said.

“There has been a gradual increase in home rule and that movement is unstoppable,” he said.

Margaret Love, who served as the U.S. pardon attorney between 1990 and 1997 under President Bill Clinton, said the Norton bill would better serve the District if it also addressed the city’s lack of authority in prosecuting felonies committed in violation of local laws, which are handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.

Ms. Love said that it would make more sense to, at the same time, give D.C. officials the power to prosecute local crimes.

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