Last week the RAND Corporation published its long-awaited Statistical Analysis of Presidential Pardons, commissioned in 2012 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics to determine whether the Justice Department process for deciding who to recommend for a presidential pardon is tainted with “systematic” racial bias. The RAND study appears to have been a direct response to an investigative report published jointly in December 2011 by ProPublica and the Washington Post, which concluded based on an examination of pardon cases granted and denied during the administration of George W. Bush, that race was “one of the strongest predictors of a pardon.”
Specifically, the ProPublica study concluded that “White criminals seeking presidential pardons over the past decade have been nearly four times as likely to succeed as minorities” while “Blacks have had the poorest chance” of receiving a pardon.
In a 224-page statistical analysis of how pardon petitions were evaluated by the Office of the Pardon Attorney (OPA) between 2001 and 2012, the RAND researchers “[did] not find statistically significant evidence that there are racial differences in the rates at which black and white petitioners receive [favorable] pardon recommendations.” (Note that sentence commutations were not a part of the RAND study.) At the same time, there was also “no question that non-Hispanic white petitioners as a group were more likely to receive a pardon than did black petitioners.”
The apparent contradiction between these two statements can be explained by the fact that white applicants were statistically more likely to satisfy the formal standards that apply to OPA decisions about which cases to recommend for pardon, suggesting that either the formal standards need revision or the pool of applicants needs to be expanded, or both.
It’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.
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 bureaucratic 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?