“The First Step Act also embodies the necessary mercy and forgiveness that must accompany any law enforcement regime governing human affairs. . . . As we consider the executive clemency process, I would hope those same sentiments will help guide us.”
“Congress doesn’t have the constitutional authority to restrict the president’s pardon authority in any significant way, and the Constitution gives the president vast leeway to decide who may receive a pardon and when it may be issued.”
WASHINGTON — Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee, gave the following opening statement at today’s hearing: Presidential Clemency and Opportunities for Reform.
Below are the remarks as prepared.
Ranking Member Collins: Last Congress, I partnered with a number of my colleagues on this Committee to get the First Step Act to President Trump’s desk for his signature. As many of you know, that bill was near and dear to my heart and near and dear to the hearts of many of my colleagues because it invests in what we, as Americans, value most fiercely—people. Since the First Step Act was signed into law, we’ve seen communities restored, hope renewed, and families reunited. That legislation is a measure of mercy that should serve as a guide toward potential future reforms.
The First Step Act ensures dangerous, violent criminals serve their time behind bars, and it excludes the nation’s most dangerous offenders from applying any time credits to their sentences. No prisoner who has a recidivism risk level higher than “low” is eligible for pre-release custody under the First Step Act, and the warden, who ultimately knows the prisoner best, makes the final decision.
The First Step Act also embodies the necessary mercy and forgiveness that must accompany any law enforcement regime governing human affairs. I stood by the president when he made his remarks at last year’s Prison Reform Summit and FIRST STEP Act Celebration. President Trump stated, “This landmark legislation will give countless current and former prisoners a second chance at life and a new opportunity to contribute to their communities, their states, and their nations . . . As president, I pledged to work with both parties for the good of the whole nation . . . The more I met and spoke with those involved in our criminal justice system, the more clear it became that unfair sentencing rules were contributing to the cycle of poverty and crime like really nothing else before. It was time to fix this broken system . . . and to improve the lives of so many people . . . [N]on-violent prisoners will have opportunities to participate in vocational training, education, and drug treatment programs. When they get out of prison, they will be ready to get a job instead of turning back to a life of crime.”
As we consider the executive clemency process, I would hope those same sentiments will help guide us.
The constitutional authority of the president to pardon offenders under the Constitution is very broad.
Congress doesn’t have the constitutional authority to restrict the president’s pardon authority in any significant way, and the Constitution gives the president vast leeway to decide who may receive a pardon and when it may be issued. But there is also precedent for Congress to provide for a variety of ways in which the Department of Justice and other entities can assist the president in evaluating pardon applications. The results of any such evaluations are simply advisory, and they can’t bind the president’s Article II authority to pardon. The president also can’t be required to consult with any person or entity before considering a pardon.
But the president can consider standards for reviewing pardon petitions, and the Department of Justice has offered just that in the past and continues to do so today. Factors taken into consideration include post-conviction conduct, character, and reputation; seriousness and relative recentness of the offense; acceptance of responsibility, remorse and atonement; the need for relief; and official recommendations and reports.
Of course, beyond such official guidance, a president can always consult his or her religious understandings. In my experience, I’ve been moved again and again by the words of the Psalms, “You, Lord, are forgiving and good, abounding in love to all who call to you;” the words in Corinthians that our Lord “has committed to us the message of reconciliation;” the words in Ephesians instructing us to “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you;” and the fundamental message of the Bible, which speaks of promise, hope, and redemption always following human cruelty.
It’s with that spirit that I approach the topic here today, and I look forward to hearing from all our witnesses.