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Massachusetts Gov Seeks Pardons for All Marijuana Misdemeanors

Gov. Maura Healey called for a blanket pardon on Wednesday. A few contemporary governors have made far more use of their pardon power than recent predecessors.

Maura Healey calls for blanket pardon of simple marijuana possession charges
Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey announces sweeping pardons for people convicted of simple cannabis possession during a news conference at the Massachusetts Statehouse on Wednesday.
Will Katcher/TNS
There’s been an obvious disconnect between states legalizing marijuana and keeping people locked up for old possession charges. Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey saw that as a real problem. On Wednesday, the Democrat called for a pardon for all misdemeanor marijuana possession convictions. To take effect, a body called the Governor’s Council will have to sign off on her plan.

“Nobody should face barriers to getting a job, housing or an education because of an old misdemeanor marijuana conviction that they would not be charged for today,” Healey said.

Pardons are mostly carefully vetted, with governors and their legal staffs seeking to ensure that the recipients are worthy and unlikely to reoffend and cause political embarrassment. But contemporary governors have become more active in issuing pardons than governors in past decades.

Missouri Republican Gov. Mike Parson has made active use of his pardon power, issuing them to more than 600 individuals over the past three years — the most of any Missouri governor since the 1940s. He issued three dozen pardons last month alone. “I still believe in law and order,” the former sheriff said last year. “I believe criminals need to be treated as such, and they’ve got accountability. [But] it doesn’t mean they’re a criminal all their life.”

Tony Evers is now the all-time champ among Wisconsin governors, having issued well over 1,000 pardons. “Since re-establishing the pardon process during my first term in office, it’s been a privilege to hear about the lives, hard work and contributions of so many to overcome their past mistakes, seek redemption and forgiveness, and give back to their communities,” Evers said last year. “Hearing about these individuals’ stories and their efforts to make amends has been extraordinary.”

Issuing pardons is a tricky business for governors. There’s always the danger that someone whose crime you’ve forgiven will commit another horrible act, with the media and the public blaming you. Oklahoma GOP Gov. Kevin Stitt, who has been an active pardoner as part of his overall criminal justice reform program, was confronted with an ad during the 2022 campaign blaming him for an alleged killer’s early release. But pardons are also a responsibility that’s been central to the office since the nation’s founding. “To me, it was part of the job description,” says Robert Ehrlich, a former Republican governor of Maryland.

During her last month in office in 2022, Oregon Democratic Gov. Kate Brown commuted the sentences of all 17 prisoners on death row and ordered the state’s execution chamber dismantled. “The death penalty is immoral,” she said. “The state should not be in the business of executing people, even if a terrible crime placed them in prison.”

Risky Business

For decades, governors were 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. "Unfortunately, we only talk about pardon policy when something goes wrong," Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, told me a few years ago.

Because of the risks, it’s still fairly common for governors, such as Brown of Oregon, to issue pardons on their way out the door. After losing his re-election bid in 2019, Kentucky GOP Gov. Matt Bevin issued 161 pardons and 419 commutations, many involving controversial cases. One pardon went to a killer whose family had hosted a fundraiser for Bevin.

Back in 1979, Lamar Alexander was sworn in as Tennessee governor three days early, with the FBI arresting three members of his predecessor’s staff for selling pardons, paroles and commutations. (That governor, Ray Blanton, became known as “Pardon Me Ray,” inspiring a song by that name.)

Time and Resources

Nearly every governor is careful not to hand out pardons on a whim or as a political favor. Many states have either independent pardoning boards or other entities whose recommendations are necessary for a governor to issue a pardon. Often, pardons are more common in those states than places where governors act alone, perhaps because of the removal from the political process.

“It is dangerous,” says Ehrlich, the former Maryland governor. “It just is. It’s dangerous politically and it’s dangerous as a substantive matter for the general public.”

Having a formal process in place means devoting time to the question, Ehrlich notes. During his time in office, he would preside over monthly meetings to examine the case files for commutations and pardons. “It was resource intensive,” he says, “but it was worth it.”

There’s some danger to issuing blanket pardons. Although a person may have been convicted of a minor crime, that could be a reflection of their plea deal. They may have committed more serious offenses, even if their conviction records don’t reflect that.

But pardons have been part of the criminal justice system throughout the history of the country. As such, they can be a useful corrective, Ehrlich suggests. “I always thought,” he says, “that it was another safe harbor on the road to justice.”
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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