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December 5, 2011

Investigation reveals (shockingly?!?!) that politicians and politics impact federal pardons

As noted here yesterday, ProPublica has now produced this series of important new articles under the banner "Presidential Pardons: Shades of Mercy."  Today's installment is headlined "Pardon Applicants Benefit From Friends in High Places," and here are excerpts from data reported in the piece: 

Since 2000, a total of 196 members of Congress — 126 Republicans and 70 Democrats — have written to the pardons office on behalf of more than 200 donors and constituents, according to copies of their letters obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Many of the letters urged the White House and the Justice Department to take special note of felons whom lawmakers described as close friends.

A statistical analysis of nearly 500 pardon applicants during the Bush administration suggests that advocacy makes a difference.  Applicants with a member of Congress in their corner were three times as likely to win a pardon as those without such backing. Interviews and documents show a lawmaker’s support can speed up a stalled application, counter negative information and ratchet up pressure for an approval.

[Roger] Adams, who ran the Justice Department’s pardons office from 1998 to 2008, acknowledged the potential value of congressional letters.  “If the official does know the person,” Adams said, “it gives it some weight.”

A Justice Department spokeswoman said that the agency would not comment on any individual cases but added that the process is not subject to influence.  “Any third party is free to express support for a pardon request, and those letters are part of the executive clemency file,” the spokeswoman said.  “The title or position of the third party who expresses his support does not play a role in the review process.”

A ProPublica analysis of presidential pardons published Sunday revealed a pattern of racial disparities in pardon awards. The review found that white applicants were nearly four times as likely to receive pardons as all minorities combined. Congressional influence did not account for the racial disparity.

Of the 54 applicants with congressional support for whom ProPublica was able to determine race, 47 were white, five were black and two were Hispanic.

I am not at all surprised to see data confirming the well-known anecdotes of prominent politicians playing a prominent role in helping a pardon applicant.  Indeed, I would be much more shocked if the ProPublica research revealed that politicians and politics had little impact on this process.  

I find a bit curious the assertion in this piece that "[c]ongressional influence did not account for the racial disparity" in clemency grants given the subsequent indication that congressional support was very disproportionately brought to bear on behalf of white applicants.  I assume ProPublica sought to control for congressional support when it "ran" the race data, but I wonder whether the intersection of congressional support AND criminal history AND socio-economic realities may together help explain some of the racial disparity data.

I will comment more on the ProPublica reports after I have a bit more time to consume and review all the data and extraordinary documents that appear on the web now.  But nothing I have seen so far has change my long-standing view — which I have expressed on this blog and in a recent law review article — that there ought to be a federal clemency commission set up to be entirely distinct from the Justice Department with the responsibility and obligation to recommend a (large?) number of cases to the President for which clemency ought to be granted.  I have long thought the federal pardon process (and not just the result) was badly broken, and these new reports about the results only confirm my views here.

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December 5, 2011 at 10:22 AM | Permalink


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"Latinos and blacks are less likely to seek out medical care throughout their lives"--U.S. News & World Report, to upwards of 50%

Maybe Latinos and Blacks are less likely to seek a Congressman's aid in securing a Pardon?

9.3% blacks with Congressman's pardon support (according to this study)
12.6% black population

Posted by: Adamakis | Dec 5, 2011 12:22:07 PM


I think you are correct to be concerned about "intersections" in the data. I actually see several points of concern so far as multicollinearity. I express other concerns here: http://www.pardonpower.com/2011/12/post-on-pardons-whites-favored.html

Posted by: P. S. Ruckman, Jr. | Dec 5, 2011 3:04:28 PM

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