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Shades of Mercy: Presidential Forgiveness Heavily Favors Whites

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Posted on Dec 4, 2011
AP / Charles Dharapak

By Dafna Linzer & Jennifer LaFleur, ProPublica

First of two parts. This story was published by ProPublica with The Washington Post.

White criminals seeking presidential pardons over the past decade have been nearly four times as likely to succeed as minorities, a ProPublica examination has found.

Blacks have had the poorest chance of receiving the president’s ultimate act of mercy, according to an analysis of previously unreleased records and related data.

Current and former officials at the White House and Justice Department said they were surprised and dismayed by the racial disparities, which persist even when factors such as the type of crime and sentence are considered.

“I’m just astounded by those numbers,” said Roger Adams, who served as head of the Justice Department’s pardons office from 1998 to 2008. He said he could think of nothing in the office’s practices that would have skewed the recommendations. “I can recall several African Americans getting pardons.”


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The review of applications for pardons is conducted almost entirely in secret, with the government releasing scant information about those it rejects.

ProPublica’s review examined what happened after President George W. Bush decided at the beginning of his first term to rely almost entirely on the recommendations made by career lawyers in the Office of the Pardon Attorney.

The office was given wide latitude to apply subjective standards, including judgments about the “attitude” and the marital and financial stability of applicants. No two pardon cases match up perfectly, but records reveal repeated instances in which white applicants won pardons with transgressions on their records similar to those of blacks and other minorities who were denied.

Senior aides in the Bush White House say the president had hoped to take politics out of the process and avoid a repetition of the Marc Rich scandal, in which the fugitive financier won an eleventh-hour pardon tainted by his ex-wife’s donations to Democratic causes and the Clinton Presidential Library.

Justice Department officials said in a statement Friday that the pardon process takes into account many factors that cannot be statistically measured, such as an applicant’s candor and level of remorse.

“Nonetheless, we take the concerns seriously,” the statement said. “We will continue to evaluate the statistical analysis and, of course, are always working to improve the clemency process and ensure that every applicant gets a fair, merit-based evaluation.”

Bush followed the recommendations of the pardons office in nearly every case, the aides said. The results, spread among hundreds of cases over eight years, heavily favored whites. President Obama—who has pardoned 22 people, two of them minorities—has continued the practice of relying on the pardons office.

“President Obama takes his constitutional power to grant clemency very seriously,” said Matt Lehrich, a White House spokesman. “Race has no place in the evaluation of clemency evaluations, and the White House does not consider or even receive information on the race of applicants.”

The president’s power to pardon is enshrined in the Constitution. It is an act of forgiveness for a federal crime. It does not wipe away the conviction, but it does restore a person’s full rights to vote, possess firearms and serve on federal juries. It allows individuals to obtain licensing and business permits and removes barriers to certain career opportunities and adoptions.

To assess how the pardons office selects candidates for pardons, ProPublica interviewed key officials, obtained access to thousands of pages of internal documents and used statistical tests to measure the effects of race and other factors on the outcome.

From 2001 to 2008, Bush issued decisions in 1,918 pardon cases sent to him by the Justice Department, most involving nonviolent drug or financial crimes. He pardoned 189 people - all but 13 of whom were white. Seven pardons went to blacks, four to Hispanics, one to an Asian and one to a Native American.

Fred Fielding, who served as Bush’s White House counsel, said the racial disparity “is very troubling to me and will be to [Bush], because we had no idea of the race of any applicant.”

“The names were colorblind to us,” Fielding said, “and we assumed they would be at all levels of clemency review.”

Beginning in September 2010, the Justice Department was required to make available the names of people denied pardons. Bush’s pardon decisions were selected to examine the impact of the pardons office’s recommendations over a president’s full term and to test how well the office met the president’s goal of assuring fairness in the process.

The department does not reveal race or any additional information that would identify an applicant, citing privacy grounds. To analyze pardons, ProPublica selected a random sample of nearly 500 cases decided by Bush and spent a year tracking down the age, gender, race, crime, sentence and marital status of applicants from public records and interviews.

In multiple cases, white and black pardon applicants who committed similar offenses and had comparable post-conviction records experienced opposite outcomes.

An African American woman from Little Rock, fined $3,000 for underreporting her income in 1989, was denied a pardon; a white woman from the same city who faked multiple tax returns to collect more than $25,000 in refunds got one. A black, first-time drug offender—a Vietnam veteran who got probation in South Carolina for possessing 1.1 grams of crack - was turned down. A white, fourth-time drug offender who did prison time for selling 1,050 grams of methamphetamine was pardoned.

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By ardee, December 8, 2011 at 5:47 am Link to this comment

It bears repetition:

tomstedham, December 7 at 4:22 pm

Email you? I have to take a hot shower just reading your screed here.

Report this

By tomstedham, December 8, 2011 at 5:22 am Link to this comment


Awwww.,.. Is that the best you have? I have
“screed”??? Sad. I didn’t insult anyone. I simply
pointed out that many white people don’t consider
members of several ethic minority groups to be
“white”, especially “Jews”... I notice that you chose
not to address that.
Jerry Seinfeld is just as “not white” as Salma Hayek.
A rich white man does not run the Federal Reserve,
for example. And when Clinton pardoned Marc Rich,
that wasn’t a rich white guy getting a pardon.
When you see “white man” it’s important to dig a
little deeper, because sometimes… it’s not a
“white” man at all.

Report this

By ardee, December 8, 2011 at 3:59 am Link to this comment

tomstedham, December 7 at 4:22 pm

Email you? I have to take a hot shower just reading your screed here.

Report this

By tomstedham, December 7, 2011 at 5:22 pm Link to this comment

I really don’t want to get into a detailed discussion
of “who’s not white” on this webpage. Feel free to
email me.
When I said “most of us”, I was using shorthand to
refer to “most of us white people who feel that Jews
aren’t white”...
To me, Jerry Seinfeld isn’t “white”, nor is Barbara
Streisand, or Ben Bernanke or Paul Wolfowitz.
Of course, neither is Kim Kardashian, Ricky Martin or
Salma Hayek. I hope you can see my point.
But my original point is that when “white people” are
blamed, many times those people aren’t actually
White is usually a shorthand for WASP, or redneck,
etc. Jews, by very definition, aren’t “WASP”...

Report this

By ardee, December 7, 2011 at 5:08 pm Link to this comment

Isaac Toussie is Jewish. Most of us don’t consider that to be “white”.

Most of whom?

Report this

By vince remus, December 6, 2011 at 6:18 pm Link to this comment

I agree with the arguments of everyone who posted.
How can we ensure future pardons are not tainted by the
color of the skin, race, religion or ethnicity?

We all have our prejudices but people who are truly in
favor of social justice must take a stand against
bigotry and racism, no matter the target.

Report this

By Markos, December 5, 2011 at 2:15 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I have always thought these segregated groups such as NAACP, Hispanics, Asians are ridiculous.  Poverty touches everyone and NO one has a separate problem and without taking into account strategies of how people solve problems, you lessen your options.  How can groups that scream diversity allow lack of diversity in their own group?  Stupid and arrogant
Divide and conquer

No wonder more whites get to the front of the line, its the buddy system and minorities need to quit joining these groups and make peace with the beast, otherwise they don’t even know who you are.

Report this
Samson's avatar

By Samson, December 4, 2011 at 8:19 pm Link to this comment

The one thing we know for sure is that its all about
money.  Its not about race or skin color. If you want
a presidential pardon, make big contributions.  We
saw that quite clearly at the end of the Clinton
years.  Its still undoubtedly true, even though the
spotlight moved off the process along with the chaser
of devils in blue dresses.

Its also true that the people with the money to buy
these pardons are more likely to be white than any
other color.  That’s history.  But no president is
going to turn down cash based on skin color.  Leonard
Peltier is still in prison because he’s poor, not
because he’s Indian.  A casino owner could get a
pardon if he had the cash, even if he’s Indian.

Report this

By Tom Stedham, December 4, 2011 at 4:04 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

They aren’t all “white”...
Isaac Toussie is Jewish. Most of us don’t consider
that to be “white”. Why didn’t you break the pardons
down by ethnicity? If you are using “Hispanic” as a
category, then “Jewish” is just as valid.

But the large numbers would have opened up a tricky
politically-incorrect can of worms, wouldn’t it? You
certainly couldn’t use a headline like:
“Shades of Mercy: Presidential Forgiveness Heavily
Favors Whites… and Jews”

Report this

By ardee, December 4, 2011 at 12:13 pm Link to this comment

No! Really! A two part article to discuss the blatantly obvious?

Report this

By John Poole, December 4, 2011 at 12:01 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Shouldn’t the heading be:  “.....heavily favors sleazy people regardless of race”.

Report this

By felicity, December 4, 2011 at 11:41 am Link to this comment

No surprise here.  A typical white family ‘holds’ one
dollar:  A typical black family ‘holds’ 10 cents.  It’s
a sorry fact that, today, money calls the ‘shots’ in

Report this

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