Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Reason Magazine on Clemency

Radley Balko is a senior editor for Reason Magazine and sometime reader of this blog. We spoke together for some time last week and this piece is now available online. Balko brought some fairly distinct views of clemency to the conversation, but it was also clear that he had researched the topic beforehand. As a result, his piece takes a much-appreciated extra effort to write about Mike Huckabee's commutation of sentence for Maurice Clemmons in a manner that is exact and informative. Just a few excerpts are enough to illustrate that this read is a cut above what has appeared to date and well worth the read :
... "It's useful to think of the pardon as another check in our system of checks and balances," says P.S. Ruckman, who runs the Pardon Power blog and is the author of the forthcoming book Pardon Me, Mr. President: Adventures in Crime, Politics and Mercy. "That check could take the form of freeing someone who is innocent. But it could also take the form of a policy disagreement." Ruckman points to President Woodrow Wilson, who pardoned dozens of violators of the Volstead Act because of his objections to alcohol prohibition.
..."Typically, a pardon comes after the person has served their time," Ruckman says. "But it doesn't have to be that way." Used this way, the power is no longer a check on injustice or misapplication of law so much as an almost godlike proclamation that a wayward soul has been redeemed. Tellingly, Ruckman says about half of all presidential pardons over the last 30 years have been issued in December, usually around Christmas.
... The wisdom of a pardon or clemency granted because a particular verdict, sentence, or application of the law was unjust ought to be judged on precisely that, and only that—whether the final outcome is consistent with our notion of justice. What happens later is irrelevant. On the other hand, when a governor pardons or frees on rehabilitation grounds someone who unquestionably committed the crime, he's made a bolder proclamation, and put his own judgment on the line. If you're going to pronounce a convicted murderer redeemed by letting him out of prison, you really should be on the hook for the killer's behavior for the rest of his life.
Coverage of the Clemmons case has muddled this distinction, and blurring the difference has made what could have been a useful discussion about when and how a governor should use these powers into one about growing skepticism about whether they should be used at all. "It's kind of a shame," Ruckman says. "I'm reading media reports now about how Huckabee's decision may spark a backlash against clemency. But it's not the decision. It's way it has been reported."
See the entire article at Reason Magazine, here.

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