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.