In what is typically a politically risky move, six state governors recently granted pardons and commutations to hundreds of current and former prisoners. In California, Indiana, Kentucky, New York, Arkansas and Vermont, more than 500 pardons were granted along with another 20 commutations or grants of clemency.
In January 2017, outgoing Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin pardoned 192 people convicted of non-violent marijuana offenses. The state decriminalized marijuana in 2013 but has yet to legalize it. According to Shumlin, the collateral consequences of a minor drug conviction are severe and in some cases unwarranted.
“When you look at the Vermonters who are sitting out there with criminal records because they have had an ounce or less of marijuana – could have happened in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s – there’s thousands of them,” Shumlin stated.
Pardoning any criminal, even low-level drug offenders, is always politically dangerous. But experts believe that shifts in public opinion have rendered such actions more acceptable for lawmakers.
“What he’s doing is, it’s almost unimaginably safe [from criticism] if you think in terms of 40 years ago,” P.S. Ruckman, Jr., a professor of political science at Rock Valley College in Illinois, told the Christian Science Monitor. “It’s highly significant. I think it’s likely we’ll see more of it.”
In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo granted 101 conditional pardons, five full pardons and 12 clemencies in December 2016. The pardons were made to advance Cuomo’s “Raise the Age” agenda, which seeks to lift the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 years old, thereby removing some of the impediments faced by people convicted of nonviolent crimes as minors – such as barriers to employment, college and occupational licenses.
“Those New Yorkers have spent at least a decade proving their rehabilitation, but have been unable to fully reenter society due to the stigma of conviction and the barriers that come with it,” Cuomo said, adding that the pardons were intended to grant the former prisoners “a second chance to live up to their full potential, provide for their families and give back to their communities.”
But as the political acceptability of clemency rises, so do concerns as to its irregular and sporadic usage.
“If sentencing is going on regularly, and people are in prison regularly, and if people are rehabilitating themselves and living as law abiding citizens from day to day, then clemency should be going regularly as well,” noted Professor Ruckman, referring specifically to the pardons in Vermont. He added: “It’s the elephant in the room. When you say, just before you leave office, 192 people deserve this second break. Did they just deserve it yesterday? Is that when it happened?”
Other governors have been forthcoming with grants of clemency, too, including California Governor Jerry Brown, who granted 112 pardons and one commutation in December 2016. [See: PLN, Feb. 2017, p.51]. In April 2017, Brown announced another 72 pardons and seven commutations, then nine more commutations in August.
The pardon process in California starts with an application submitted to the governor. The governor’s office determines which applicants are eligible, and those who are may then obtain a Certificate of Rehabilitation – an order from a state superior court recognizing that a former prisoner has been rehabilitated.
The pardons issued by Governor Brown all went to people who had completed their sentences; most had been convicted of drug-related or other non-violent crimes. Three went to honorably discharged immigrant veterans who had been promised citizenship in exchange for their service, but whose convictions put them at risk of deportation.
Unlike a pardon, commutations in California essentially fast-track the process for a prisoner to appear before the Board of Parole Hearings, which then makes a determination as to whether he or she should be released.
In February 2017, Governor Eric Holcomb of Indiana announced he had decided to pardon Keith Cooper, 50, whom he believed had been wrongly convicted of robbery. Holcomb cited the state parole board’s support for the pardon, along with the backing of the prosecutor and witnesses in the case.
While serving as Indiana’s governor, Vice-President Mike Pence had declined to pardon Cooper, who accepted a deal to withdraw his claim of innocence in exchange for being released from prison.
Elliot Slosar, Cooper’s attorney, accused Pence of putting “his own political fame and desires in front of exonerating a wrongfully convicted human being,” adding, “[i]t’s disgraceful in light of the fact that he’s the second person in command of this nation – somebody who doesn’t have the courage to stand up for what’s right, for what’s just.”
Cooper filed a wrongful conviction suit in federal court on November 6, 2017.
Meanwhile, in July 2017, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin pardoned ten people. “My office receives many requests for pardons,” he stated. “All of them are in the process of being carefully reviewed. After much deliberation, I believe that unique circumstances warrant executive action for these 10 men and women. There will be additional pardons granted, as warranted, in the months and years ahead.”
One of the people pardoned in Kentucky was Deah Adams. The Lexington-Fayette County coroner had determined in 2011 that the death of Deah’s adopted son, 5-year-old Joseph Adams, had been caused by ingesting a lethal amount of vinegar. Experts testified that no amount of store-bought vinegar could kill someone, and Adams eventually pleaded guilty to criminal abuse.
Governor Bevins’ office stated that “all available evidence” in the case led him to decide that Joseph’s death was a “heartbreaking and tragic accident.”
Most recently, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchingson announced in early November 2017 that he intended to issue 13 pardons to people who had fully completed their sentences, including any time on probation or parole, and had paid any applicable fines. Those receiving the pardons had committed crimes ranging from theft and commercial burglary to robbery and drug-related offenses.
On the federal level, President Trump has thus far granted only one pardon – to disgraced former Maricopa County, Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of criminal contempt for deliberately disregarding a federal court order. [See: PLN, Oct. 2017, p.42].
Sources: CBS News, www.indystar.com, Christian Science Monitor, Albany Times-Union, www.gov.ca.gov, www.governor.ny.gov, www.lex18.com
Originally published in Prison Legal News on December 5, 2017.