A New Year’s wish: New life for the pardon power!

As the first post of 2024, we are highlighting a great article by Matt Stout of the Boston Globe about how Massachusetts Governor Healey and other governors across the country are reviving their pardon power after years of neglect: “Clemency was a political third rail for decades. Healey and other governors are starting to embrace it.”

Stout begins his piece by telling the story of Joanne Booth, a middle-aged woman who could not escape an epsiode of youthful bad judgment, despite having twice had the resulting conviction sealed:

Joanne Booth was 18 in 1979 when, while out at a club in Cambridge, she saw her brother getting arrested, pulled her shoe off, and threw it at the officer. She was arrested when she literally hopped into the Police Department to check on her sibling, she said.

On her attorney’s advice, she pleaded guilty to assault and battery with a dangerous weapon — which, she notes, was ”a little white sneaker.” She completed her probation and community service, and, she thought, paid her debt for her “punky” teenage behavior.

Until January 2021, that is, when she was abruptly fired from the Boys & Girls Club, where she’d worked as a pre-K teacher, because the 42-year-old conviction, which she twice had sealed, reemerged on a background check the club was mandated to run after receiving a grant.

Booth was one of 13 people pardoned by Governor Maureen Healey in her first year in office, forecasting the revival of a long-dormant gubernatorial power to cut short the lifetime of punishment that comes with having even a minor criminal record.
Stout cites our Restoration of Rights Project to show the “growing number of states where chief executives are embracing pardons and commutations — in some cases, at historic levels — amid a wider movement on rethinking criminal punishment.”

While inconsistent across the country, the use of clemency has soared in some red and blue states alike. Mike Parson, Missouri’s Republican governor and a former sheriff, has pardoned more than 600 people in just three years. Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, has granted more than 1,100 for drug, theft, and other offenses — a record in his state. Before leaving office in January, Pennsylvania’s Tom Wolf, a Democrat, granted 2,500, more than doubling the number issued by any of his predecessors. Hundreds were for marijuana-related offenses.

In other states, such as Delaware or South Carolina, officials have typically granted hundreds of pardons each year. They embody pockets of the country where governors, or independent boards, have regularly issued pardons without major scandals, said Margaret Love, executive director of Collateral Consequences Resource Center, a nonprofit that provides research on criminal justice issues.

Still, clemency remains relatively spotty. The Restoration of Rights Project, which Love’s nonprofit runs, counts 16 states where pardons are granted frequently or regularly. In nearly as many, they’re infrequent, and in 13 others — Massachusetts still included — they’re considered rare.

Stout’s article places the revival of the pardon power into a larger context of a bipartisan effort to restore rights and dignity lost as a result of arrest or conviction:

The shift now in Massachusetts and elsewhere reflects what Love called a wider “renaissance” on criminal justice: State legislatures are expanding voting rights for people with felony convictions or reshaping professional licensing requirements, including by limiting when someone’s criminal record can be considered in an application.

With clemency, “governors are appreciating they have a responsibility to use their constitutional power to, you can say, do justice,” Love said, “to perform the kind of function that the law doesn’t allow.”

Stout traces the dearth of pardoning in Massachusetts to the infanous Willie Horton episode that is widely regarded as having sunk Michael Dukakis’ presidential bid in the 1980’s, but Governor Healey herself suggests a simpler reason: “The elected officials didn’t have the investment [in granting clemency], and the system itself was not functioning properly,” she said. “People couldn’t count on this to be a meaningful process.”  Healey has issued new guidelines that tighten timelines and broaden standards, hoping to restore public confidence in that process. 

At the end of his article Stout returns to the story with which he began his article:

Booth — whom Healey pardoned for her 1979 assault conviction, as well as a drunken driving conviction from the early 1980s — said the fact that Healey has acted on her and others’ petitions is itself “amazing.” Booth said the pardon allowed her to return several weeks ago to her job teaching, where she was enthusiastically embraced by coworkers.

“So many hugs,” she said. “It really is like getting your life back.”

We hope that this trend in reviving what Alexander Hamilton called the “benign authority” will continue in 2024.  We also hope that officials in charge of the federal pardon process will persuade President Biden to join that trend, beginning with the backlog of almost 4000 pardon applications that has been building in the Justice Department for more than a decade. It is all well and good for the President to issue class-wide proclamations pardoning unnamed individuals convicted of marijuana possession, but there are hundreds of individuals who filed pardon petitions years ago who have been waiting in line for the president’s decision in their case.

Note: The Justice Department’s Pardon Attorney has recently announced that letters will soon go out to those that have not been granted clemency “in order to deliver closure to those waiting for answers they deserve.” The announcement adds that those receiving these letters “are welcome to submit new petitions,” and it links to the lengthy pardon application form. We hope that pardons will be granted to at least some of these applicants, many of whom are likely as deserving of relief as Joanne Booth.