Conahan seeking sentence commutation from White House

By Jennifer Learn-Andes -

Former Luzerne County judge Michael Conahan has asked the president to reduce his sentence — a measure known as a commutation, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Submitted Dec. 1, 2016, when Barack Obama was still in office, Conahan’s request is verifiable because the department added an online searchable database in March.

The database lists the case as pending, but the department can’t disclose additional details, including where in the process a case is pending, said department spokesperson Nicole Navas Oxman.

A 65-year-old Hazleton native, Conahan is incarcerated for his guilty plea to one count of racketeering conspiracy related to his acceptance of money in exchange for decisions that benefited two privately owned juvenile detention centers in a case that became known as “Kids for Cash.”

He was sentenced to 17.5 years in prison and has been incarcerated since September 2011, with a scheduled release date of Dec. 18, 2026.

Commutation explained

The president has authority under the Constitution to commute a sentence for a federal offense, but it is an “extraordinary remedy that is very rarely granted,” according to the Department of Justice website.

A synopsis of the commutation process is posted on the government site.

If a decision is not made by a current president, the petition automatically remains pending for the next one.

While a granted commutation reduces a sentence, it does not does not imply innocence or erase a criminal conviction record.

Among the general factors traditionally considered:

• Disparity or undue severity of sentence

• Critical illness or old age

• Seriousness of the offense of conviction

• Overall criminal record

• The nature of the applicant’s adjustment to prison supervision

• Length of time already served

• The applicant’s candor

Applicants are free to solicit supportive letters, but recommendations from elected officials are not required or binding on the president.

The application requests a detailed account of the offense, a description of the full extent of the applicant’s involvement, and the reasons for seeking a commutation.

The department and White House do not hold a hearing on applications and generally don’t disclose specific reasons for granting or denying petitions. If a request is denied, the filer can reapply a year later.

Conahan’s case

It’s unclear what arguments Conahan has presented in support of a reduction.

One may be that the original sentence under his first plea agreement with federal prosecutors was to serve 87 months, which would have equated to a little over seven years. If that had held up, Conahan would be wrapping up his incarceration around the end of this year.

In July 2009, then-U.S. District Judge Edwin Kosik rejected the original plea agreement that called for Conahan and former Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella to plead guilty to honest services fraud and tax charges in exchange for 87-month prison sentences. Kosik said he did not believe the former judges had adequately demonstrated they accepted responsibility for their conduct.

Conahan reached a second plea agreement with prosecutors in April 2010, which allowed a sentence of up to 20 years. Kosik sentenced him to 17.5 years and payment of $974,167 in restitution and fines.

If expression of remorse is a consideration in the commutation, Conahan stated plenty during his September 2011 sentencing. He apologized to juveniles and for tarnishing the judicial system, saying he would “work the rest of my life to atone for what I’ve done.” Conahan described his past action as “corrupt” and without “integrity.”

Conahan was lodged at the Federal Correctional Complex at Coleman in Florida for a little over five years.

In March 2017, he was moved to a minimum security satellite camp in Miami, Fla., according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Ex-judge petitioned president for commutation

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.