The DOJ plan to expand access to clemency to “nonviolent felons who have served at least 10 years in prison and who would have received significantly lower prison terms if convicted under today’s more lenient sentencing laws” as the Times puts it, has received, as it should, broad media coverage.
But for the access to the justice community, the real headline may be buried at the end of the Times story. Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole “also announced a new leader of that office, Deborah Leff, a Justice Department official who has worked to give poor people access to lawyers.”
That the acting head of the Access Initiative, who has been working hard to support effective indigent defense, is now in charge of the pardon process, replacing an incompetent at best former prosecutor, reinforces that this is now truly a “Justice Department” and sends a powerful signal of balance.
As the Times editorial put it: “Mr. Rodgers is being replaced by Deborah Leff, who runs the department’s Access to Justice Initiative, which works to increase legal representation for people who cannot afford it. By all accounts, Ms. Leff has a deep understanding of the complex and politically sensitive issues at play.”
Of course, this also leaves the Access Initiative itself even more desperately understaffed just when its importance and potential have been underlined.
Well earned congratulations to Ms. Leff, both for her wonderful work and for the promotion, and lets hope the administration moves very quickly to fill the gap on a permanent basis.