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Shades of Mercy: Presidential Forgiveness Heavily Favors Whites
Posted on Dec 4, 2011
By Dafna Linzer & Jennifer LaFleur, ProPublica
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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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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