“The president’s idle executive power: pardoning”

As the presidential pardon of everyone’s favorite Thanksgiving galliformes makes front-page news across the country (a tradition that the many human clemency petitioners who have spent years awaiting action must struggle to find the whimsy in), two law professors take the federal clemency system to task in a new Washington Post opinion piece.  In the piece, professors Rachel E. Barkow (NYU) and Mark Osler (University of St. Thomas) argue that the long and multi-tiered review process for federal clemency petitions could be significantly improved if the president would minimize the Justice Department’s involvement in the process while shifting responsibility to a bi-partisan review commission.  From the article:

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Canada stiffens policy on sealing of criminal records – but it still looks pretty liberal from here

A couple of news items about an increase in clemency applications in Canada made me curious to learn more about how restoration of rights works in our Northern neighbor.

Canada has long had a policy of virtually automatic sealing of criminal records through what is known as a “record suspension” (before 2012, called a “pardon”).  The Criminal Records Act (CRA) makes record suspension available from the Parole Board of Canada for any offense except sex crimes involving children, and to any individual except those convicted of multiple serious crimes, after waiting periods of five years from completion of sentence for “summary” offenses and 10 years for “indictable” offenses.  (Prior to 2012 the waiting periods were three and five years.)  Non-conviction records may be purged sooner.

Once a record has been suspended, all information pertaining to convictions is taken out of the Canadian Police Information Centre and may not be disclosed without permission from the Minister of Public Safety.  The CRA states that no employment application form within the federal public service may ask any question that would require an applicant to disclose a conviction.  It is unlawful under Section 3 of the Canadian Human Rights Act to discriminate in employment or housing or union membership against anyone based upon “an offence for which a pardon has been granted or in respect of which a record suspension has been ordered.”

In 2012-13 the PBC ordered more than 6600 pardons and records suspensions, 97% of all applications received.  (According to the PBC website, since 1970 more than 460,000 Canadians have received pardons and record suspensions. “96 percent of these are still in force, indicating that the vast majority of pardon/record suspension recipients remain crime-free in the community.”)

The 2012 amendment of the CRA to extend the eligibility waiting periods has resulted in an increase in applications for the extraordinary remedy of “clemency,” which has higher standards but no eligibility waiting period.  Clemency, formally known as the “Royal Prerogative of Mercy” (RPM), may be granted in federal cases by the Governor General or the Governor in Council (i.e. Federal Cabinet), and applications are staffed by the PBC.   Clemency is intended “only for rare cases in which considerations of justice, humanity and compassion override the normal administration of justice.” All other avenues of relief must have been exhausted, and there must be must be “clear and strong evidence of injustice or undue hardship.”  In contrast to the thousands of ordinary records suspensions granted each year in Canada, there are only a handful of these extraordinary clemency grants.  In 2012 there were 52 RPM applications and only 12 grants.

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Labels and stereotypes in the President’s immigration speech

obama-immigration-speechThe President’s decision to take unilateral executive action to insulate certain undocumented immigrants from the immediate threat of deportation has provoked outrage in some quarters and profound relief in others.   The legal issues raised by this decision are important and debatable, some of its line-drawing is problematic, and its success stands or falls on the uncertain terrain of bureaucratic discretion.  No doubt its political implications are yet to be revealed.

But amid all the uncertainty, one thing is clear.  In his speech announcing the initiative the President said, repeatedly and definitively, that no one with a criminal record would benefit from his reprieve.   Thus, he emphasized that enforcement resources would remain focused on “actual threats to our security,” by which he meant “Felons, not families. Criminals, not children.”   Again, it is possible to benefit from the law if you can “pass a criminal background check” (whatever that means), but “[i]f you’re a criminal, you’ll be deported.”   Even people convicted of misdemeanors will not be spared under the new DHS enforcement priorities.

Entirely apart from the wisdom or fairness of the immigration policy choice involved in this broad blanket exclusion (and there are good reasons to be critical of it), it was disheartening to hear the President present it in such unfortunate language.  The ugly labels of “felon” and “criminal” do, after all, at least technically describe a status shared by 25% of adult Americans.  Labels like these serve only to demonize and exclude, and they are fundamentally at odds with our national policy of encouraging rehabilitation to reduce crime.  There were other ways the President could have justified continuing his policy of deporting based on criminal record than by using words that do more to stir up fear of “the other” than to describe relevant functional attributes.

The President’s words suggest that people who have been convicted of a crime are evermore to be regarded as “felons” and “criminals,” categorically threatening to our safety and security, and uniformly deserving to be segregated and sent away.  But he himself pardoned such a person less than two years ago, precisely to keep her from being deported. And he is surely aware of the bipartisan conversation now underway about the need to curb over-criminalization, one of the few matters on which Republicans and Democrats can agree.   It is tempting to take linguistic shortcuts when politically expedient, but it is a temptation he might have resisted without jeopardizing his larger objective.

It is time we stopped using negative stereotypes and labels to describe people who at some point in their past have committed a crime, in the immigration context or otherwise.  It is no longer acceptable to describe undocumented immigrants as “illegal aliens.”  Our language needs a similar makeover where past convictions are concerned.

Gubernatorial candidate brings clemency issues to forefront of Maryland race

Larry Hogan, Republican candidate in the Maryland gubernatorial race, criticized current governor Martin O’Malley’s sparing use of executive clemency and pardon power.

As reported in the Washington Post:

Republican Larry Hogan says a governor’s authority to commute sentences and pardon prisoners is an important power that he would rejuvenate if he is elected governor.

Hogan spoke in an interview with reporters of The Associated Press on Monday. Hogan says he believes Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration hasn’t made pardons and commutations a priority of his tenure. Hogan says while he considers himself to be a tough law and order candidate, there are people who need the pardon and commutation process. He says he would seek help former Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s help in using the power more.

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