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January 4, 2011

Interesting policy echoes from notable clemency grants in California

One of many reasons I favor and often urge robust use of clemency power by executive officials is because notable clemency grants often spark useful public discussion of important issues of sentencing law and policy.  This reality is on full display in California, where two sentence commutations by outgoing Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (discussed here) have lots of folks buzzing.  For example, consider this Mercury News editorial, which is headlined "Make governors issue pardons before the end of term."  Here is how it starts:

Governors frequently fire off pardons on their way out the door. Whether apt or outrageous, the details tend to get buried by attention to the new regime. But any rise in public cynicism that results from what appears to be a political pardon does not go away. It's cumulative.

This is the case with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's commuting of a manslaughter sentence for the son of former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, a Democrat who now works in a consulting firm with Schwarzenegger's former communications director.

So we have a suggestion. All pardons should have to come at least six months before a governor leaves office. That way governors would have to defend them while they're still working on a legacy. They'd be less likely to risk appearing to be motivated by political interest.

Pardons can bring justice, and may have in at least two of the shortened sentences Schwarzenegger granted -- one for a woman who, at 15, had killed her pimp, and the other for a man who many believe was acting in self-defense in a shooting.  But reducing the manslaughter sentence for Nuñez's 21-year-old son has got heads shaking.

Relatedly, consider also this local article, which is headlined "Clemency of juvenile killer gives Yee hope." Here are excerpts:

The last-minute sentence commutation of a woman serving life without parole for killing her pimp at age 16 has given a Peninsula state senator hope this is the year California abolishes the absolute term for all juvenile offenders.

As one of his final gubernatorial acts, Arnold Schwarzenegger granted clemency to convicted murderer Sara Kruzan by reducing her sentence to 25 years to life in prison. While the change doesn’t guarantee freedom to Kruzan, who fatally shot the man in 1994, it does offer the possibility.

State Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco/San Mateo, has long argued that all juvenile offenders deserve the chance at rehabilitation and release rather than being incarcerated at a young age with no hope of parole.  He initially proposed completely outlawing the sentence but it failed to pass.  Last year, Yee successfully pushed a tweaked version known as the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act through the Senate with bipartisan support but it died in the Assembly during the final days of the session.  He reintroduced the legislation, now known as Senate Bill 9, last month....

Yee’s bill does not abolish life without parole outright but would give courts leeway to review convictions after 10 years and consider changing some sentences to a minimum of 25 years to life.   Yee’s several attempts to pass the bill have been supported strongly by psychiatric and child advocacy groups but opposed by the California District Attorneys Association and California Police Chiefs Association.

January 4, 2011 at 02:38 PM | Permalink

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or how about treating pardons like an executive veto, able to be overridden by 2/3 of the legislature?

Posted by: . | Jan 4, 2011 5:46:05 PM

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