Pardons: A Delicate Balancing Act for Governors

As the most incarcerated nation in the world, many people have strong and even emotional opinions about crime and punishment in the United States. There is a sense of the “bad guys” being bad to the core and getting their due. Pardons issued by governors across the country, therefore, are sometimes greeted with serious controversy despite usually being well-calculated and cautious decisions.

Writing for Stateline, Maggie Clark says governors must walk a thin line between doing what’s right and pleasing who they need to—balancing “pardons with politics”.

A pardon doesn’t absolve someone for their crime. But it does help them get back on their feet. It essentially restores the rights taken away by a conviction, though it doesn’t wipe the slate clean, so to speak.

Some governors issue hundreds, others issue none. The current president has issued fewer than any other president since George Washington and he isn’t alone in his caution.

Many governors fear looking soft by pardoning offenders. Others worry the people they pardon will go on a murderous rampage if they are pardoned. And while the chances of this happening are slim to nil, they do have a few examples to point at and say, “I don’t want it to end like that.”

As former governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee faced serious heat after a man whose sentence he commuted went on to kill four police officers in Washington state. But this is the exception to the rule. Most pardons end in a fizzle.

Jerry BrownHuckabee’s successor issues several pardons each month. In his six years in office, he’s issued almost 530. Illinois governor Pat Quinn has issued 800 since 2009, working to clear a backlog of over 2,500 applications. California Governor Jerry Brown has issued 149 in the past few years.

On the other end of the spectrum, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, New York’s Andrew Cuomo, and Massachusetts’ Deval Patrick have granted none.

Typically we see governors more willing to issue pardons when they will not be up for reelection or when they don’t have their sights set on running for a higher office. When their political reputation isn’t on the line, they are far more forgiving.

And there are countless pardon applications submitted to our nation’s Governors, often for real miscarriages of justice, like non-violence drug offenses with harsh sentences from three strikes laws, old cases where convictions where clearly based on thin or flawed evidence, and countless other cases where our imperfect criminal justice system gets it wrong.

It’s important to note, however, that pardon power doesn’t rest solely with the governor in many states. In some, lawmakers must approve the pardons while pardon boards have a say in others. Still, governors of the nation wield considerable weight when it comes to crime forgiveness.

For an illustration of pardon power state-by-state, look here.


About David Matson