Sunday, February 5, 2012

Alfred Smith and the Pardon Power

Alfred E. Smith, the 46th governor of New York, revolutionized state politics and, as a prison reformer, was far ahead of his time. When he came into office, prisoners were still being chained to floors and walls and, if they were difficult to control, might find their heads shoved into buckets of water until they got right. Prisons made little attempt to rehabilitate prisoners or to prepare them for outside employment. Inadequate health care and over-crowding were part of the mix as well.

Professor David R. Corburn notes that, each session, Smith introduced "at least one bill and usually several bills" aimed at "improving prison conditions." He also gave numerous speeches and interviews on the topic.  The theme was constant, helping a prisoner "to a line of honest endeavor" is "helping ourselves."

Smith found the granting of clemency particularly stressful saying, "I think there is no part of the Governor's job that causes him more mental and even physical strain" When he looked back on the last-minute appeals of 19 persons who were executed during his tenure, Smith said, "I came near going with them every time."

Because he had so much else to do, and could not give every clemency application the careful attention that it deserved, Smith recommended that a Board of Pardons be created. In his mind, it was the "modern, humane, scientific way to deal with criminal offenders." Yet, in his either years in office, Smith commuted the sentences of several hundred prisoners and "few" ever returned to prison.




Governor Smith
Year
Pardons
Commutations
Restoration of Rights
Respites
1925
86
79
202
13
1924
84
76
160
6
1923
65
45
182
20
1920
22
157
242
34
1919
23
116
164
11
Governor Miller
1922
20
6
49
10
1921
11
53
83
7
Governor Whitman
1918
12
119
169
11
1917
21
121
146
5
1916
6
46
120
11
1915
8
47
64
10
Governor Dix
1912
13
47
144
5
1911
11
38
152
3


In 1926, the Republicans decided to use Smith's record on clemency as a campaign issue. They loudly claimed that Smith's pardons and restoration of rights were an attempt to gain votes. It was also suggested, simultaneously, that most of those who were pardoned were from New York City and that the pardons had contributed to an increased crime wave throughout the entire state! Some noted the previous governor (a Republican) had been quite stingy with pardons. But the poster children for the pardon smearing campaign were "hardened criminals" John "Bum" Rodgers and Izzy Presser (aka the "Czar of Sing Sing").

If you read the Republican press, you learned Mr. Presser was not only a convicted felon, but also an attempted jail breaker, pardoned by Smith. You learned Mr. Rodgers was a "professional criminal" with 13 convictions since he was 13 years old! What was Governor Smith thinking? It's time to get rid of him! Get rid of the antiquated pardon power! What an insult to judges and juries everywhere!

The New York Times (no friend of Smith) noted a mere dose of "adequate information" actually went a long way toward understanding Smith's record on clemency, and the two particular cases. Again, very few people pardoned by Smith returned to prison. Presser had actually served out his entire sentence. You know, the one that the judge and jury gave him. And he was only being held because he was charged with attempting to escape - a charge which a jury then cleared him of (Get rid of juries!). It was a State Board of Paroles that actually granted parole to Presser (Get rid of Boards!), a decision that Governor Smith revoked until further investigation. Parole was then, again, granted, but never a pardon (Get rid of parole too!).

John "Bum" Rodgers' clemency was actually recommended by the trial judge (Get rid of judges!). It was also true that the prosecuting attorney recommended clemency (Get rid of prosecutors!). This all seemed pretty illogical but for the fact that, at the time of the granting of clemency, Rodgers only had two offenses (one being petty larceny). The failure of several layers of public officials involved an inability to accurately predict the future.

Some things never change!

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