Are Pardons Becoming More Politically Acceptable?

Gubernatorial pardons have been in decline since the 1980s, but that appears to be changing as views evolve on rehabilitation and drug offenses.
by | January 14, 2015

Last Friday, on his last full business day in office, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn pardoned 232 ex-offenders.

That same day, in neighboring Indiana, Gov. Mike Pence issued three pardons -- the first during his two years in office.

Which governor’s actions were standard? Until recently, it would have been easy to pick Pence. For decades now, governors have been sparing with pardons, not wanting to be perceived as lenient and worrying about the political risks that can come with pardoning people who go on to commit further crimes.

But gubernatorial pardons may be about ready to start making a comeback. As part of the broader rethinking of criminal justice strategies, in which concerns about rehabilitation, exonerations and expungement of records have become part of the mix, more governors seem willing to embrace their historic role of offering clemency to those who have earned it.

Quinn offered 43 additional offenders clemency during his last minutes in office on Monday, bringing his career total well above 1,000. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe issued nearly 50 pardons during his first year in office, while California’s Jerry Brown gave out more than 100 on Christmas Eve.

Those sorts of numbers still stand out. The number of gubernatorial pardons has dropped dramatically in recent decades, according to legal experts. Plenty of governors these days only offer a few pardons a year, if that many.

But governors offering a regular flow of pardons are no longer the outliers that they would have been just a few years ago. "I do have a sense that people like Quinn represent the future," said P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political scientist at Rock Valley College in Illinois and editor of the Power Pardon blog. "There is kind of a different mindset."

One telltale sign of that, Ruckman points out, is that some new governors, including Larry Hogan of Maryland and Bruce Rauner of Illinois, talked during the campaign last year about the importance of taking the pardon power seriously in office. "That wouldn’t have happened in the 1980s,” Ruckman said.

It's in keeping with the broader change in attitudes about nonviolent drug offenses. Where marijuana possession was once a felony, it’s more accepted, if not legal. Many governors are willing to forgive long-ago crimes that may be keeping someone from getting a job.

“Certainly having a felony can be a barrier to employment to a lot of people,” said Marc Levin, policy director for Right on Crime, a conservative criminal justice reform group based in Texas. “Obviously, just about everyone should agree that people who are exonerated should be pardoned.”

States that have either independent pardoning boards or entities whose recommendations are necessary for a governor to issue a pardon, such as Connecticut and Georgia, have been more active on the clemency front than governors acting alone. A number of those states routinely grant upwards of 200 pardons per year.

Still, governors from both parties, such as Democrat Andrew Cuomo of New York and Republican Scott Walker of Wisconsin have offered either few or no pardons.

There’s still a “political fear quotient” involved in pardoning someone who might go on to commit a heinous crime, noted former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich. "Unfortunately, we only talk about pardon policy when something goes wrong," said Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

That’s why governors need to be careful, Ehrlich said, putting regular review processes in place and not bunching up all their decisions at holidays or as they leave office. That's the approach outgoing Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe has taken, reviewing applications on a monthly basis throughout his tenure.

Ehrlich has made pardons something of a personal cause, speaking frequently about the responsibility governors have regarding clemency. He runs a program to delineate best practices at Catholic University and offers advice to incoming governors.

“I just believe it’s hit more families, it’s crossed more lines in our culture than ever before,” Ehrlich said. “Everyone has a relative or a friend whose son or daughter got caught up, in many cases doing long time for drug offenses.”

Maybe not everyone, but plenty of families -- and now editorial boards and activist groups -- are pushing governors to offer clemency in some cases. A group of legal scholars and former Gov. Bob Holden pressed Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon last year to pardon a group of 14 women, some of whom had suffered abuse and whose sentences were out of proportion to those received by men.

Nixon didn’t pardon them, but he did offer nine other pardons at the end of 2014. He issued just one pardon during his first six years in office.

Most governors remain wary about stepping into old cases, even though their pardon authority may offer the best chance for someone who has redeemed himself after committing and serving time for a crime --or who was innocent in the first place.

“One thing that will be interesting to watch is that President Obama” -- who has issued the fewest pardons of any president since Dwight Eisenhower -- “has a clemency project that may or may not result in hundreds of sentences being commuted,” said Osler. “Maybe that will embolden some of these more liberal governors as well.”