Conor Friedersdorf: Why second chances for prisoners are so hard to come by
Last was Ronald Blount, who had called me every Friday as his petition was pending. I had gone to his prison in Louisiana, leaned over a table, and prayed with him. He was called to the warden’s office, like the others, not knowing why.
When he answered the phone, I said simply, “God is good.”
There was a pause, breathing. And then he said, “All the time.”
The Trump administration has offered Americans many emotions, but very rarely has it created moments of joy shared across the country’s political divide. One of those rare moments came on June 6, 2018, the day that President Trump granted a commutation to Alice Marie Johnson, a grandmother serving a life sentence on a narcotics conviction. The nation watched as Johnson, clad in drab gray prison sweats, ran across an Alabama-prison road into the arms of her jubilant family. Yes, just the week before Trump had pardoned the Fox News darling Dinesh D’Souza, and that contrast did muddy one’s emotions. But nevertheless it was a brief, surprising, uplifting moment.
The pardon clause is what enabled that moment and others like it. This short clause is the wild thing of the United States Constitution: ancient, unchecked, unbalanced, and placed solely within the discretion of the president. In a criminal-justice system characterized by its inhumanity, the pardon power is capable of only one thing, something more spiritual than legal: mercy. Part of clemency’s elegance is the dialectic between the giver of mercy and the recipient, in which responsibility for a crime is accepted and contrition expressed, followed by mercy and reconciliation. Trump has upended this by taking the acceptance of responsibility and the reconciliation out of it; too often, clemency in his hands has just been a way to mark and reward terrible behavior he approves of, as with Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s biased policing.
Because of the depth and beauty of the pardon power, Trump’s abuse has been enraging both to those who love it and those who don’t. The difference lies in their reactions. When commentators such as the Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith call for Congress to restrict the pardon power in reaction to Trump’s favoritism, they channel the anger of many—but theirs is a misguided call. The core problem with modern clemency has not been too much of it, but not enough. Right now, more than 13,000 petitions are pending, many of them having sat in limbo for years in a byzantine maze of bureaucracy, most of it coursing through the very same Department of Justice that sought the harsh sentences in the first place. The reform we need is a new, better process to evaluate petitions, so that more people, not fewer, can know this blessing.
Jeffrey Crouch: Our Founders didn’t intend for pardons to work like this