Monday, December 1, 2008

Scholarship: Tis' The Season to be Pardoned

FROM THE EDITOR: Interested readers can look over a professional paper that I intend to deliver at the upcoming meeting of the Southern Political Science Association, in January, in New Orleans. The topic of the paper is the notion of "seasonal clemency" and its relevance to the actual use of the pardon power. In a previous study, of 16,000 clemency warrants signed from 1789 to 1933, I found that the most popular months to be pardoned were March and June.

In this latest study, of more than 10,000 clemency warrants signed between 1931 and 2008, I find that December has generally been the month of choice for the last 12 presidents. Almost a quarter (2,453) of the pardons granted in this time period have been granted in a single month, December, and the remaining 75 percent are dispersed in such a way, across the remaining 11 months, that the second highest month (June with 1,005) and third highest month (January with 882) are far behind. See chart here.
This skew toward the month of December is even greater in more recent administrations (see chart here), including the administration of George W. Bush (see chart here). For the last seven presidents, December pardons and commutations are about five times more numerous than the figure for the second highest month (January). Interestingly, December is the primary month for pardons and commutations even when controlling for the effects of the last December of each term. That is to say, the skew toward December is not the residue of "last-minute" pardoning. It is rather the artifact of long-standing practices that dominate decision-making throughout presidential terms.

Far from being a trivial point of statistical trend, the skew toward December pardons and commutations is highly problematic, indeed troubling. First, clemency should be a regular (if not more common) feature of the justice system. Second, the skew in December pardons and commutations may encourage the notion that such acts are "gifts" of "grace," when, in fact, they are often long overdue acts of well-deserved reward. Finally, the paper also discusses the possibility that December pardons are the byproduct of "political" (if not cynical) decision making in an environment dominated by the notion of retributive justice.

For a draft copy of the full text of this research paper, click here.

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