Monday, March 29, 2010

How the Media Killed the Commutation

There was a time (in the early 1900s) when presidents actually granted more commutations of sentence than they did pardons. Today, of course, commutations of sentence are downright freakish. Lyndon B. Johnson was the last president to use them with anything like regularity.

On June 6, 1966, Johnson set a new record for the highest number of individual pardons granted in a single day. Johnson broke the forty-three year old record of Warren Harding by granting clemency to ninety-three individuals. But author Kathleen D. Moore notes Johnson was also “disgusted” by “press criticism” of the “large” number of pardons that he granted.

In a 1979 article written for Corrections Magazine, Kevin Krajick notes Johnson averaged about seventy commutations of sentence a year midway through his term. This “reasonably liberal record” was criticized, however, by a U.S. Senator when Johnson commuted the sentence of an organized crime figure from Cleveland. Krajick notes “no one ever made any allegations of impropriety” but Johnson “apparently decided not to risk any more adverse publicity.”

The organized crime figure was one John Alfred Gay, whose 10-year sentence was commuted to seven years by Johnson. With good behavior credit, Gay left prison after only four and a half years. The Cleveland Plain Dealer ran a 13-part series on Gay's case and discovered the commutation was granted over the objection of the U.S. Attorney's office. U.S. Pardon Attorney, Reed Cozart, admitted that none of the references in Gay's clemency application were "checked."

The complaining Senator was John J. Williams (R-Delaware) a.k.a. "Mr. Integrity" or "The Conscience of the Senate" or "The Sherlock Holmes of Capital Hill." Williams emphasized that he had "no evidence of impropriety" and that he had no desire to leave the "inference" that he did. Nor did he have any interest whosoever in investigating the matter, or pursuing it further.

But, while he was in the neighborhood and so many people were looking at him, Senator Williams simply could not help but fret over the "new attitude" in the Johnson administration that had led to what he saw as a "spectacular increase" in clemency. He worried about its apparent fondness for "opening prison doors." Williams also had aggregate statistics published in Congressional Record and made a general announcement that it was time to stop "coddling criminals."

It worked. In the next eighteen months, Lyndon Johnson granted only five commutations of sentence. And Americans have not seen many commutations since.

Nixon granted a total of 60. Carter granted only 29.  Reagan granted 13 in eight years and George H.W. Bush granted only 3. Clinton granted 61 commutations of sentence (most at the scandalous end of his second term) and George W. Bush granted 11 in eight years.

No comments:

blogger templates | Make Money Online