Sunday, April 27, 2008

South Dakota: Commutations Remembered

This post, at the ArgusLeader, retells the story of "the Janklow 36." Twenty-two years ago, in October of 1986, Governor Bill Janlow (R) addressed the prison overcrowding pardon by releasing individuals that he considered to be "low-risk inmates with few South Dakota ties." Thus, the commutations were conditioned on the recipients leaving the state and never returning. The article says a commutation of that sort "has not been granted in South Dakota before or since." The result of the effort? The ArgusLeader notes:
It was a gamble that, according to an Argus Leader investigation, turned out to be a much bigger public safety risk to South Dakota and other states than the governor probably ever imagined. A few took advantage of the release to re-enter society, starting families and businesses. But many ended up in prison for crimes ranging from dealing drugs to armed robbery and burglary. At least six still are behind bars. One, Cliff Birch, raped a 23-year-old woman in a field between Freeman and Canistota only 20 months after he was granted his early release.
But the article also notes Governor Janklow used the pardon power "at an unmatched rate, issuing almost 2,000 commutations during the second eight-year stint in the governor's office." Nothing is said in the piece about the post-prison record of the other 99 percent of the persons who were released. Nonetheless, the piece concludes:
But the lesson of that decision is a valuable one today as state legislatures struggling with overcrowding and skyrocketing corrections budgets consider easing those pressure valves with early releases. At least eight states are considering freeing inmates or sending some convicts to rehabilitation programs instead of prison ... Now, as states grapple with overcrowding and surging corrections budgets, it's a lesson worth remembering, especially when places such as Kentucky and California are considering releasing thousands of inmates early.
But what exactly is "the lesson" here? Is it that clemency should not be used at all? Or, is it that better judgement should have been made with respect to "many" of the 36 individuals highlighted in the article? Maybe "the lesson" is that the state cannot be 100 percent accurate(only 99 percent) about the future of every individual who, at the time of release, might be worthy of clemency - a rate that might be considered fairly impressive in most other arenas of human activity.

Janklow initiated a program that made inmates eligible for earlier parole if they participated in community service projects. A 2003 task force decided that clemency program was "a good idea." Indeed, ninety-three percent of the nearly 2,000 commutations mentioned above (or 1,874 to be exact) were members of inmate work crews. In addition, most of those commutations were "minor sentence reductions" that simply pushed up an inmate's release date. On average, the difference was about 77.38 days. I am guessing that if most - or even a significant portion - of those released had commited heinous crimes and had been returned to prison, we would all know about it. That is to say, there is a reason for the lack of statistical insights regarding the other 99 percent.

Janklow's clemency decisions were actually "controversial" for another reason. From, 1995 to 2003, the State's nine-member Pardon and Parole Board received a whopping 4,540 applications for commutations. And yet the Board (composed of citizens) only recommended clemency in a 6 cases! Governor Janklow granted all but one of his commutations without input from the board. What is "the lesson" here?

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