Is pardon making a comeback? Probably not, but law reform may be

A recent issue of Governing Magazine reports that pardoning is “making a comeback” after decades of neglect.  It would be nice if it were true.

h2_31.132.34But the evidence of comeback is thin. Almost all of the jurisdictions where pardoning is thriving today are the same ones where it was thriving a decade ago.  In a dozen states, including Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Nebraska, South Carolina and South Dakota, pardon has never been neglected, much less abandoned by responsible officials. In these jurisdictions and a handful of others, pardon has deep roots in the justice system and is supported by accountable institutions of government.

It is certainly true that Pat Quinn of Illinois and Jerry Brown of California have made generous use of the power of their office after years in which the pardon power in their states languished unused.  Terry McAuliffe of Virginia is a newcomer to the small group of governors who evidently feel that pardoning is a responsibility of office.  All three are to be commended for it.  But three swallows do not make a summer.

Read more

A tale of two (or three) pardoners from Illinois

64133-004-53FEB8CC Illinois Governor Pat Quinn spent his first and last days in office considering pardons.  On April 10, 2009, referring to the hundreds of cases left untouched by his impeached predecessor Rod Blagojevich, he declared that “Justice delayed is justice denied,” and promised that “My administration is fully-committed to erasing this shameful log jam of cases in a methodical manner and with all deliberate speed.”

Quinn was as good as his word.  His interest in erasing the pardon backlog never flagged, even during his two reelection campaigns.  By the time he left office earlier this week, he had acted on more than 5,000 pardon applications and granted full pardons to 1,789 people, more than any other Illinois governor in history.  In his final week he also pardoned a man found innocent by the courts, making him eligible for compensation from the state, and commuted a number of prison sentences, freeing two men whose guilt had been drawn into question.

Far from being critical, the press was full of praise for his courage and compassion.  It was a fitting way to ring the curtain down on a tenure that saw the pardon power restored to a respectable and fully operational role in the Illinois criminal justice system.

Read more

Jerry Brown takes back a pardon . . . really?

CA.img42766495Jerry Brown reportedly regretted one of his 105 Christmas Eve pardons, after learning from an LA Times article that the recipient had recently been disciplined by federal financial regulators.  He therefore announced that he was rescinding his grant, claiming that the pardon was not yet final because the Secretary of State had not signed the document evidencing it.

This is not the first time that a governor or president has had second thoughts about a pardon, but it is unusual for a chief executive to attempt to undo one that has been made public.  Governor Brown’s attempt to retract the pardon may or may not be effective, but it certainly reflects unfortunate disarray in the administration of the pardon power in California for which other deserving pardon candidates may end up paying.

Read more

A pardon celebrates the life of a public defender

One of the 12 pardons granted by President Obama on December 17 went to Albert Stork of Delta, Colorado, long-time advocate for indigent criminal defendants on the rural Western Slope.  Al Stork pled guilty in 1987 to filing a false tax return, and served six months in federal prison. While his conviction came about in an unusual way, what makes Al’s case so special is what he did with his life afterwards.

Al Stork’s conviction arose out of his family circumstances. In the early 1980s, one of his two older brothers was an elected prosecutor in Colorado’s Sixteenth Judicial District; the other was a fugitive from Colorado authorities, having spent most of his life (as Al put it) “either in jail or on the lam.” Al himself, then in his early 20s, was leading what his defense lawyer described years later as “an unexceptional and unmotivated middle class life,” working construction and selling a little marijuana on the side.

Read more

How risky is pardoning? Not as risky as committing uninformed journalism

An AP story about the perils of pardoning, picked up by newspapers and media outlets across the country, manages to convey three pieces of misinformation in its very first sentence.  Riffing off a recent high profile pardon application, it begins like this:  “Mark Wahlberg’s plea for a pardon has focused fresh attention on excusing criminal acts – something governors rarely do because it’s so politically risky.”

But pardons do not “excuse” crimes, they forgive them; governors have been pardoning more and more generously in recent years; and pardoning, like any other government program involving personal participation by a high profile elected official, is generally not risky if done in a responsible manner with good staff support and without apology.

Read more

‘Tis the season for . . . . some presidential forgiveness

IMG_0291It’s that time of year again.  Odds are that sometime in the next two weeks President Obama will issue some pardons and commute some prison sentences.  I have never quite reconciled myself to the unfortunate and ahistorical  association of pardoning with the silly turkey ceremony (the Obama girls were right to roll their eyes) and Christmas gift-giving, the result of decades of presidential neglect and sometime Justice Department sabotage of the power.  But now that the season for forgiveness is upon us, I can’t wait to see what’s underneath the tree.

It was my fondest hope during the 2008 campaign that this president would want to revive the practice of pardoning, like Jerry Brown in California and Pat Quinn in Illinois, and restore a degree of regularity and accountability to the federal pardon process.  But so far President Obama has issued only 52 full pardons, making him the least generous full-term president in our Nation’s history.  And so far there is no indication that he intends to reinvigorate the federal pardon process, as Justice Anthony Kennedy urged in an iconic speech to the American Bar Association more than a decade ago, and as scholars and practitioners have regularly urged in less exalted settings ever since.  Nor has his Administration proposed any alternative procedure by which individuals with federal convictions can avoid or mitigate collateral consequences, like the set-aside authority in the Youth Corrections Act that was repealed in 1984.

But there is some reason for optimism even this late in the game.  President Obama’s evident willingness to use his constitutional power to reduce long drug sentences will hopefully have a spillover effect on the other half of the clemency caseload, the applications for full pardon from people who have long since served their sentences and gone on to live productive and law-abiding lives.  There are more than 800 applications for pardon pending in the Justice Department, many from people convicted decades ago whose lives of service have been exemplary.  They deserve something more than a gambler’s chance at forgiveness.

Collateral consequences and the curious case of Mark Wahlberg

Actor-producer Mark Wahlberg has filed an application for pardon with the Governor of Massachusetts, seeking forgiveness for a 25-year old assault conviction that occurred when he was 16 years old.   The “onetime ruffian from Dorchester”  bases his request for pardon on his rehabilitation and contributions to society since his conviction.  He also specifies his desire to avoid certain legal restrictions that he claims are impeding his business endeavors and civic activities.

By his own account, Mr. Wahlberg was a troubled teen who had a history of scrapes with the law by the time of the 1988 assault. He states in his pardon application that, if he
had not turned his life around with the help of “faith, hard work, and guidance from some incredible mentors,” he “would likely have ended up like so many of my childhood friends from Dorchester: dead or in prison for a prolonged period of time.”   He expresses remorse for his actions on the night of the assault, as well as “any lasting damage that I may have caused the victims.” He does not specify what that damage might have been, though news reports indicate that it was serious and possibly permanent.

As to his reasons for seeking a pardon, he claims that “my prior record can potentially be the basis to deny me a concessionaire’s license in California and elsewhere, “an important consideration given my personal involvement in various restaurant ventures,” presumably a reference to the fast-expanding chain of Wahlburgers.   He believes that, if pardoned, “I could not be denied a concessionaire’s license on the basis of my prior record,” which may or may not be the case.*

Wahlberg also proposes that a pardon would enable him to become “more active in law enfor
cement activities, including those that assist at-risk individuals.”  He states that only a full and unconditional pardon would, under California law, enable him to “obtain a position as a parole or probation officer.”  True enough, but an improbable ambition for an A-List movie star.  He disavows in his application any immediate interest in obtaining a firearms permit — leading this writer to wonder if one is required on location.

Read more

The “president’s idle executive power” and collateral consequences

In their Washington Post op ed on the President’s neglect of his pardon power posted earlier on this site, Rachel Barkow and Mark Osler are critical of the Justice Department’s us-department-of-justice-squarelogobureaucratic process for processing applications for executive clemency, which they argue takes a very long time and yields very little.  (The New York Times editorialized last year in a similar vein about how DOJ has effectively sidelined the president’s power as a tool for justice for more than 20 years.)  Barkow and Osler ask why Justice considered it necessary or wise to farm out the processing of thousands of petitions from federal prisoners to a private consortium called Clemency Project 2014, rather than reform the official process:  “such a short-term program does nothing to fix the problematic regular clemency process that will survive this administration unless action is taken.”

Barkow and Osler focus on sentence commutations, and not on the other common type of clemency grant: a full pardon, typically sought by those who have fully served their court-imposed sentences, to avoid or mitigate collateral consequences.  In addition to the thousands of prisoner petitions awaiting consideration by DOJ’s Pardon Attorney, there are now more than 800 petitions for full pardon pending in the Justice Department.  Most of these petitions were filed by individuals who completed their court-imposed sentences long ago but remain burdened by legal restrictions and social stigma.  A majority of the pending petitions were filed years ago and have long since been fully investigated.  What can be holding things up?

Read more

1 2 3