A analysis of pardon applications shows that criminals who had the support of a member of Congress were three times as likely to win approval for their pardon as those who didn't. Nearly 200 members of Congress have written to the pardons office on behalf of a constituent since 2000, most of them mentioning a personal relationship with the convicted felon when arguing on their behalf.
The study, conducted by ProPublica and The Washington Post, looked at a random sample of 500 pardon applications made during the George W. Bush administration (out of 1,918 cases) to try and determine what factors made a person more likely to win their case. Not surprisingly, being rich, white and having powerful friends correlated with a high probability of success.
A Justice Department officially says, that “The title or position of the third party who expresses his support does not play a role in the review process," but it's clear that knowing the right people in Washington is a huge advantage. Given the large volume of people seeking presidential attention, simply getting a phone call from a Representative or Senator can get you the extra look needed to smooth the process along.
How the applicant and the Congressperson became friends is never asked, of course. Despite lengthy background checks and interviews with all who apply, the Justice Department explicitly ignores political contributions made by the applicant. The reason is to avoid any and all suggestions that financial support or party affiliation affects the process — which naturally allows financial support and party affiliation to affect the process without anyone knowing it.
The study also showed that white people were four times as likely to receive a pardon as minorities, and financial stability (the absence of a bankruptcy or lien on one's record) also increased the odds of a successful pardon. Because pardon applications are an expensive, complicated, and lengthy process, the profile of who can partake obviously skews towards those with resources, like Dale Critz Jr. The Post story explains that Critz needed a pardon to take over his family's card dealership business in Georgia. Despite being convicted of a felony directly related to the line of work he wanted the pardon for (auto-loan fraud), other run-ins with the law, violations of his parole (using firearms), lying to the FBI during his interviews, and lying on his pardon application, Crtiz got approved. A big reason why was Rep. Jack Kingston, a family friend who wrote a letter and made two phone calls to the pardon office's top official.
Perhaps the most shocking (or not shocking given what we know about our justice system) none of the 62 African-American applicants in the study's sample size received a pardon.
Having the backing of Congress was not a guarantee of success, since most applications fail, with or without a legislator's backing. However, it's not hard to figure out that, as with most things in life, it's all about who you know.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.