Monday, June 28, 2010

The Director Who Could (or Would) Not Count

Robert Kennedy once boasted that he and his brother “made a real major effort and really major breakthrough” when it came to pardons and commutations. The notion was certainly enhanced by James V. Bennett’s 1970 book entitled I Chose Prison. Bennett, who served as Director of the Bureau of Prisons from 1937 to 1964, praised Kennedy for his exceptional “compassion.” He also claimed that his fellow Democrat “used his powers of granting executive clemency more often than any other President in our history.”

The observation may have appeared all the more impressive by the fact that, at the time Bennett’s book was published, the pardoning power seemed to be a thing of the past. Lyndon Johnson granted no pardons in the last seven months of his administration and Richard Nixon pardoned no one in his first nine months as president.

But, in fact, Bennett’s impressive looking statement was little more than still yet another example of a high profile - and otherwise informed person - commenting on the pardoning power without any real clue about the empirical landscape.

Kennedy’s three-year mark of five hundred and seventy pardons was not even half of single term marks set by Woodrow Wilson (second term), Calvin Coolidge (either term), or Franklin Roosevelt (third term). At least fifteen other presidents before Kennedy granted more pardons, including his immediate predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower (second term). Nor did Kennedy set any records for the number of pardons in any single year, or the number of pardons in the first three years of an administration. In fact, Woodrow Wilson pardoned more people in a single year (the last year of his second term) than Kennedy did in all three of his years as president.

Bennett had plenty of “experience” with the justice system, but he simply was not paying attention to the pardoning power very well.

1 comment:

John Thacker said...

Yeah, but don't forget the most (almost all, IIRC) of those that Woodrow Wilson pardoned, along with many that Harding and Coolidge pardoned, were convict of the heinous Sedition Act of 1918. Wilson deserves a fair amount of the blame for them even being in prison in the first place.

If our prisons had been filled with Vietnam War protestors, then there would have been a better case for LBJ and Nixon pardons during the relevant time periods.

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