Just a week before Christmas, President Barack Obama’s decision to exercise his rarely used authority to forgive was indeed a surprise. The president issued 13 pardons representing a quarter of all pardons granted during his five years in office.
One of those who received mercy was the first cousin of Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. In 1994, Reynolds Allen Wintersmith Jr., of Rockford, Ill., was given a life sentence on charges of dealing crack cocaine. No one is suggesting that Patrick used his influence to get his cousin a pardon. He had no involvement in Wintersmith’s application for clemency.
However, what is of concern is that a member of Patrick’s family could benefit by an act of executive clemency and still as governor of Massachusetts, Patrick refuses to pardon a single individual. He is not alone in his disdain or disregard for clemency. In fact, even as Obama pardoned 13 offenders he has been as stingy as any president when it comes to forgiveness.
American presidents are empowered by Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, “to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States.”
A ProPublica analysis of Justice Department statistics last November found that Obama had granted pardons at a lower rate than presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton or George W. Bush had at the same point in their administrations.
Obama has pardoned only 52 people. President Harry S. Truman pardoned 1,537 people. In fact, Truman pardoned his first prisoner eight days after taking office -- an office he assumed by the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, not through an election. In contrast, according to the New York Times, Obama waited 682 days into his presidency before using his power.
Obama is not to be blamed for clemency falling out of vogue. The demise of the pardon is a byproduct of being “tough on crime.” Draconian sentencing laws driven by the war on drugs, prisons bursting at the seams, and a never-ending parade of new laws criminalizing everything imaginable are also evidence of a system run amok.
Obama is not the only executive throttling clemency.
On the last day of 2013, and for the first time in his three years in office, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued pardons to three people who had completed their sentences. Advocates and editorial boards have, for his entire governorship, pressured Cuomo to exercise his power to pardon.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker hasn’t granted a single pardon since taking office. His office says he has no immediate plans to use his clemency authority. Recent governors from both parties have pardoned hundreds of offenders. A Walker spokesperson told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the governor “believes these decisions are best left up to the courts.”
Michael Albano, a member of Massachusetts’ Governor’s Council, wants to see more clemency, “It is my hope this act of clemency by the president will lead Gov. Patrick to rethink his position on pardons and take similar action in Massachusetts.” The last pardon in Massachusetts was made by Gov. Jane Swift, who left office in 2003.
Page 2 of 2 - New York, Massachusetts and Wisconsin have traditionally been more progressive than other states. The reluctance of these three governors to act may be a harbinger of things to come, and that is unfortunate.
The corrective power of the pardon, when used in a principled and honorable fashion, has the capacity to redeem the authority of the justice system and instill an element of compassion in an otherwise impersonal, callous and mechanical system.
Avoiding that fundamental executive responsibility out of a fear of the political consequences is a failure in leadership and a growing injustice.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” is due out this summer. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.