Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Insights: Battered Women and Clemency in Michigan

  Carol Jacobsen is an award-winning social documentary artist whose works in video and photography address issues of women's criminalization and censorship. Her art has been exhibited and screened at venues worldwide. In addition to her teaching responsibilities in art and women's studies at the University of Michigan, Jacobsen serves as Director of the Michigan Women's Justice and Clemency Project (formerly the Michigan Battered Women's Clemency Project). In that capacity, she advocates for the human rights of women prisoners and seeks freedom for women wrongly incarcerated. Her projects have been sponsored by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, COYOTE, Women's Prison Association of New York, the American Civil Liberties Association, and other non-profit organizations. PardonPower asked Prof. Jacobsen about her work:

PardonPower: Was there a particular event, or series of events which led up to the creation of the Michigan Battered Women's Clemency Project and/or how did you come to be associated with the Project?

Prof. Jacobsen: Susan Fair, a former prisoner, founded the Michigan Battered Women's Clemency Project (now renamed Michigan Women's Justice & Clemency Project) in 1991, when she was released from prison. She was responding to the knowledge that too many women were serving life or long sentences for murder who had actually acted in self-defense. I had been in the women's prison filming since 1989 and was appalled to discover the same injustice. When Susan founded the Clemency Project, we joined forces to make several more films narrated by the women. In 1995, I became Director of the Project, with Lynn D'Orio as lead attorney and Lore Rogers, attorney, coordinating with us. At that time, we were under the umbrella of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In 2005, we became a nonprofit 501(c)3 on our own. We have rotating groups of volunteers, including attorneys, domestic violence professionals, educators, prisoners and former prisoners, and students from colleges and universities throughout the state.

PardonPower: What is the difference (if any) between a pardon and a commutation in the State of Michigan? If there is a substantive difference, has the project sought both for individuals, or has it tended to focus on one or the other?

Prof. Jacobsen: Clemency is a discretionary power to remit sentences, after conviction, by means of pardon, commutation, reprieve or amnesty. Generally, a pardon is the most sweeping remission of the consequences for violating the law: it erases both the punishment and the guilt of the offender after conviction and may be absolute or conditional. Commutation shortens the offender's sentence, generally to time served, or may substitute a term sentence for a death sentence. A reprieve is a temporary suspension to postpone execution of the sentence. Amnesty usually refers to release of person convicted of political offenses. We seek clemency (any process will do!); but the Michigan form that we submit refers to commutation.

PardonPower: I am guessing most readers of this blog are familiar with the legal concept of a "battered woman," but how would you summarize it and what are some things that are commonly misunderstood, or little known about it?

Prof. Jacobsen: It is a problematic term since no woman is only a battered woman, but is a woman who has been/is being battered/beaten down by a male partner physically, emotionally, sexually, financially, verbally in any way or all of these ways. It may include hitting, slapping, punching, kicking, pushing, pinching, hair pulling, threats with guns or other weapons or objects, deliberate drowning or burning or other deliberate injuring, name-calling, threatening, raping, sexual forcing of any kind against a woman's wishes, controlling or manipulating behaviors, controlling of money, threats of harm or actual harm to the person or children or other loved ones including animals to punish or force certain behaviors, stalking, and combinations or variations of these cruel and controlling behaviors.

PardonPower: The Project's web site says, "Clemency is intensely political, and our ability to sway public opinion may be our best hope of success." Accepting the premise, do you have any thoughts on whether or not this is a good or a bad thing? Should the clemency process be more closed to the public and - as a consequence - less prone to public manipulation, grandstanding or backlash?

Prof. Jacobsen: Public openness is our best ally. Not sensational media coverage, but rather an open process. Prisons are closed systems and that makes them ripe for abuse, retaliation by officials and guards, cruelties and barbarisms of all kinds. The closed prison system allows people to be tortured in our U.S. prisons every day, every hour, every minute in the most horrible, inhuman ways. For women, it means going from a domestic sphere of violence and abuse to an institutionalized system of horror and violence. I do not believe any person would stand by and allow the tortures to go on if they could see what really occurs inside women's prisons, and realize the kinds of sadistic punishment we are meting out to human beings every day. Our criminal justice system is corrupt, obsolete, broken. The public needs to see and understand that.

PardonPower: The Project web site suggests the current Governor of Michigan has thus far "shown little interest" in your cause. Do you have the sense that there are (or have been) other governors who stand in sharp contrast, or are there states, where battered women are given due concern?

Prof. Jacobsen: Battered women have been granted clemency in many states, sometimes in large groups, as Governor Celeste did in Ohio in 1990 (26 women); Governor Weld of Massachusetts in 1991 (7); Governor Schaefer of Maryland in 1991 (8); Governor Edgar of Illinois in 1994-97 (6); Governor Chiles of Florida in 1993-95 (7); Governor Jones of Kentucky in 1996 (9); Governor Fletcher of Kentucky in 2007 (21), and others. Some governors, such as Gov. Schwarzenegger, have preferred to speed up the parole process to release battered women.

PardonPower: The Project's web site, mention of a clemency petition that was filed some time ago without response. In Illinois, a U.S. District Court judge has recently ruled that the Governor has a duty to respond to clemency petitions within a "reasonable" amount of time. Any thoughts on that?

Prof. Jacobsen: Governor Granholm took 2 1/2 years to deny 20 petitions we had submitted to her. That is grossly unjust. She has now had 12 of our petitions on her desk for 20 months without response. We have added 4 more in the past several months. Ironically, we may see our first clemencies for battered women, not due to our efforts, but due to the near-bankruptcy of our state. Nevertheless, we will celebrate every one when it comes.

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