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Shades of Mercy: Presidential Forgiveness Heavily Favors Whites
Posted on Dec 4, 2011
By Dafna Linzer & Jennifer LaFleur, ProPublica
All of the drug offenders forgiven during the Bush administration at the pardon attorney’s recommendation—34 of them—were white.
Turning over pardons to career officials has not removed money and politics from the process, the analysis found. Justice Department documents show that nearly 200 members of Congress from both parties contacted the pardons office regarding pending cases. In multiple instances, felons and their families made campaign contributions to the lawmakers supporting their pleas. Applicants with congressional support were three times as likely to be pardoned, the statistical analysis shows.
In reviewing applicants, pardon lawyers rely on their discretion in ways that favor people who are married and who have never divorced, declared bankruptcy or taken on large amounts of debt. The intent, officials say, is to reward people who demonstrated “stability” after their convictions. But the effect has been to exclude large segments of society.
The ProPublica data show that applicants whose offense was older than 20 years had the best odds of a pardon. Married people, those who received probation rather than prison time, and financially stable applicants also fared better. When the effects of those factors and others were controlled using statistical methods, however, race emerged as one of the strongest predictors of a pardon.
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None of the 62 African Americans in the random sample received a pardon. To assess the chances of black applicants, ProPublica used the sample to extrapolate the total number of black applicants and compare it with the seven blacks whom Bush pardoned. Allowing for a margin of error, this yielded a pardon rate of between 2 percent and 4 percent.
Adams, the head of the pardons office under Bush, said applicants were not penalized based on race. In fact, Adams went out of his way, he said, to help black applicants.
“People in general more and more feel that it is appropriate to give extra consideration to a member of a minority group,” he said.
Applicants are not asked about their race. But race is listed in many of the law enforcement documents collected for the application, including pre-sentence reports, rap sheets and Federal Bureau of Prisons records.
Under Justice Department regulations, Adams said, lawyers in the pardons office conduct a rigorous review of an applicant’s offense. They then examine character, reputation and post-conviction behavior—tests of what Adams termed “attitude.”
“Is the person seeking a pardon for forgiveness or vindication?” Adams said. “Are they going to wave a flag around that says a pardon proves they didn’t do as bad as the government said?” If so, he said, “it is counted against them.”
Samuel Morison, a lawyer who worked in the pardons office for 13 years, said there is an institutional interest in preserving the convictions secured by the government’s prosecutors.
“The pardon office is not a neutral arbiter, because the Justice Department was a party to every criminal case it examines,” Morison said.
The yardsticks used by the office under Adams continue to be used under his successor, Ronald L. Rodgers, a former federal prosecutor and military judge.
Theodore B. Olson, a former solicitor general who has represented high-profile pardon applicants, said he has long been frustrated by the slow pace of the process and its lack of transparency. The Justice Department says the office has increased its efficiency, deciding cases in a little more than two years, an improvement since 2005, when the wait was twice that.
When a pardon is denied, the notice comes with no explanation.
“It just comes out of the blue,” Olson said. “You can’t explain to your client why, especially when you think you’ve made a strong case.”
Parallel Cases, Disparate Outcomes
Denise Armstead’s beauty salon sits on a busy corner in Little Rock’s west side. A big sign out front beckons customers from the largely African American neighborhood.
Armstead, who is black, became a hair stylist straight out of high school and dreamed of owning her own salon. Like many small-business owners, she kept her own receipts. An accountant filled out her tax forms.
In 1994, the federal government accused Armstead, then 35, of failing to report $32,000 in income over four years. She hired a lawyer and fought the charges, ultimately getting them reduced to a single count of under-reporting her income in 1989.
Her lawyer, a former Internal Revenue Service employee, advised that a trial would cost more than the $3,000 fine, she said. In a plea bargain, she received three years’ probation and paid the fine in installments.
In the same city, Margaret Leggett and her husband, who are white, were also accused of violating federal tax laws. In 1981, Leggett rented an apartment under a fictitious name and her husband created a fake bank account and fake Social Security numbers. They then filed for multiple tax refunds totaling more than $25,000.
Leggett pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the government by making false claims. In her mid-30s, she was sentenced to three years in prison but was released after three months. Her husband paid a $5,000 fine and served 15 months in prison.
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