Watch CBS News

She's one of 18,000 people waiting for a presidential pardon. She knows an answer may take years.

Sarah Carlson
Sarah Carlson Zoe Christen Jones/Handouts

Sarah Carlson has been on a decade-long path to redemption since her arrest in 2009. Recently, she bought her first home, completed an internship in addiction counseling, and will soon work toward a degree in social work. 

But Carlson has encountered several roadblocks along the way. The Minnesota resident often struggled to secure both housing and work. As a convicted felon, Carlson had to apply for an exemption with the state to work with vulnerable adults with addiction — she had to prove her crime was nonviolent. 

"I'm just at a point where I don't want to have that stigma when I go and apply for another job, or I go into my next school that I'm going to go into because you have to do fingerprints when you go to school and you have to do a background check with that school," Carlson explained. "Everywhere I go there will be background checks and I don't want that to be a hindrance for my future."

In 2009, Carlson was homeless and addicted to drugs when she was arrested after driving with a friend to pick up meth, according to her clemency petition. When police tried to pull them over, a chase ensued. She says she dumped water onto the five and a half ounces of meth in their possession to dissolve it. She was later convicted of misprision of a felony and sentenced to probation. She's been sober since September 2011.

Carlson applied for a pardon in 2020 but has yet to hear back on the status of her case. Her case is just one of the 18,363 petitions that are currently pending — that's more than any other time in recent history. 

"It's a difficult journey —rewarding but difficult journey — to have a 20-year drug addiction, and then get sober, get your kids back, get your life together," Carlson said through tears. "I would just really love the opportunity to be forgiven for bad choices because I've worked so hard to help others."

The president is the only person responsible for granting or denying these requests with the help of the pardon attorney, who works in an advisory capacity. The Justice Department declined to comment on how many recommendations the pardon attorney has made to the president this year. 

President Biden has yet to approve any pardon requests since he took office, and more than one thousand cases have been closed without presidential action— which means they were withdrawn or the person has passed away. Since he was sworn in, his office has received 191 pardon requests and 2,952 clemency requests, according to federal statistics.

The responsibility of sorting through and reviewing the applications falls on the Office of the Pardon Attorney's staff of 20 — 11 of whom are lawyers — stationed within the Justice Department. In the Office's 2021 budget summary, they spoke of the "unprecedented increase" in cases.

The Justice Department says neither form of clemency — pardons and commutations — signifies innocence. 

Pardons are the only means of restoring rights, such as the ability to vote, obtain certain licenses, sit on a jury, or run for office. There are no other avenues available to those with a federal criminal record to seek relief, other than a presidential pardon. 

While a commutation does not wipe a convict's record clean, it can reduce a total or partial sentence. Commutations may also include a remission from the president, which frees the person from the financial requirements, like fines, that were imposed as part of a sentence.

In September, the Biden administration said it would begin a clemency review of non-violent drug offenders on home confinement through the CARES Act, who have less than four years left to serve or have sentences that may no longer fit the crime. They are currently only considering those who have between 18 and 48 months remaining on their sentences. It is unclear how many inmates would benefit from this, or be forced to return to prison.

When asked what the administration could do to expedite the process for the thousands of backlogged cases, the Justice Department referred CBS News to the White House. The White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

"I'm still being sentenced, I'll never be free."

Alan Fields, a Michigan resident, misses the moments he can no longer get back, like coaching his son's baseball team. Fields was permanently sidelined when the league started conducting background checks, a move that would have exposed his criminal history.

In 1992, Fields was indicted on charges of conspiracy drug possession. It was a nonviolent crime for which he only served one day in prison after pleading guilty in 1994. Seventeen years later, in 2011, he applied for a presidential pardon, his only recourse to clear his federal criminal record. His request included letters of support from his sentencing judge and his probation officer, but 10 years later, Fields' petition stands unanswered. 

"We're talking about over almost three decades now," Fields said. "Do we have to punish me that long, or for the rest of my life?" 

Now, Fields is a paralegal where he works on criminal trials and finds himself looking over at the jury panel with reverence. "I absolutely wish I could take part in one of the important parts of our justice system, and I can't," Fields said. "I'm still being sentenced, I'll never be free."

Margaret Love, a former U.S. Pardon Attorney, has been reluctant to pick up her office landline which she says has been ringing off the hook for months because she doesn't want to fill prospective clients with false hope. "It's at best a long shot," she said.

Love served as U.S. Pardon Attorney during the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations and recalled what she said was a "hostile" attitude from prosecutors at the department, who were uninterested in seeing cases they prosecuted come full circle. 

"They're frequently wonderful success stories, and so there should be no reason why a prosecutor would possibly be concerned," Love said about pardon cases. "In fact, you might think, 'Gosh, this is a success story. I should revel in it you know, we stopped him from going further down the path of crime.'" 

Love continues to advocate on behalf of the "ordinary people," like Fields, who she says often committed situational or minor crimes, served their time, and may go on to become upstanding citizens of their community.

Since his arrest, Fields has not gotten into any further incidents with the law, has worked in healthcare, earned a master's degree and is currently working toward a law degree. 

In 2014, he was interviewed by the FBI, as per procedure during this process, and recalls crying in front of the agents.

"It was embarrassing. They were asking me why I wanted [a pardon], and I was like, you know, if it was nothing else just to say, 'Hey, I forgive you for making that one stupid mistake,'" Fields said. "I don't profess to be a perfect individual, but something like that, you know how you know better and sometimes you don't, you do something stupid anyway. That's the only thing I can say is that that's something that I don't want to characterize myself as being."

If he had 15 minutes alone with the president, Fields says he would spend it explaining why he believes the system needs to change from requiring clemency a sole duty of the president, and be amended to make other avenues available to reduce the backlog. "This is problematic. The process is not working," Fields says.

Experts say pardons are critical to the criminal justice system.

Mr. Biden's predecessor, former President Donald Trump, granted a total of 144 pardons and 94 clemencies during his four years in office. Handing out executive clemency has long been associated with the holiday season in the spirit of forgiveness and mercy, but the trend was not made popular until former President Richard Nixon, who granted clemency to 643 people, according to the Marshall Project. 

Since the early days of the republic, presidents regularly granted various forms of clemency throughout the year, not waiting until the last minute to provide a second chance. According to public data, leaving a substantial backlog for the next administration was not the norm until the end of the Clinton administration. Since then, thousands of requests have piled up through the Office of the Pardon Attorney. 

Love says the pardon process is critical to the criminal justice system, however, she thinks that the courts should be in charge of the approval process for pardons —  similarly to how the First Step Act now allows felons to petition the Bureau of Prisons and their sentencing judges for compassionate release

"Compassionate release is great if you're in front of a good judge, but many aren't," said Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. "We don't need one solution at the exception of others. I think compassionate release is good, but it doesn't displace the importance of clemency and commutations. You need both because if you're in the Western District of North Carolina, compassionate release doesn't really exist."

Others have recommended the creation of a bipartisan advisory board that would take the clemency advisory process out of the Justice Department. Any changes, however, would require legislative action by Congress, or executive order by the president, since the constitution gives him the sole authority to grant pardons on the federal level.

When asked about clemency in August, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, "We are working hard every day to reform our justice system in order to strengthen families, boost our economy, give people a chance at a better future. As part of this, the President is deeply committed to reducing incarceration, helping people successfully reenter society."

Robert Legare and Sara Cook contributed reporting.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.