Race's Role in Presidential Pardons

Race's Role in Presidential Pardons

New research reveals that race seems to matter when it comes to receiving a pardon from a president.

Published December 5, 2011

Black criminals might be hard-pressed to receive a presidential pardon. An investigation by ProPublica found that white criminals are about four times as likely as minorities to receive presidential pardons.


The pattern became apparent under President George W. Bush, who based pardoning upon recommendations by the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney. The move opened the door for the office to use subjective standards in the decision-making process.


The report found that Bush pardoned 189 people between 2001 and 2008, but of those only seven were Black, four were Hispanic, one was Asian and one was Native American.


President Obama seems to have followed his predecessor’s lead by only pardoning applicants recommended by the pardon office. And as a result, the report notes that 20 of the 22 people Obama has pardoned were white.


The investigation uncovers instances where white applicants won pardons over non-white applicants even in cases where the records were similar.


It found the case of an African-American woman from Little Rock, Ark., who was fined $3,000 for underreporting her income in 1989 and a white woman from the same city who faked multiple tax returns to collect more than $25,000. The African-American woman’s pardon was denied, while the white woman’s was given the presidential OK.


It also found the case of a white four-time drug offender, serving time for selling 1050 grams of methamphetamine, who was pardoned. Meanwhile, a Black first-time drug offender who got probation for possessing just over one gram of crack was turned down.


The Justice Department is providing a window into the potentially problematic process.


”The Office of the Pardon Attorney does not consider race in its review of clemency applications," a spokesman for the department said in a statement. "The Office reviews applications and makes recommendations following a rigorous process designed to evaluate applicants based solely on the merits of their request and the results of the pardon background investigation.”


The statement goes on to say that the pardon process is based on a number of criteria, “including the applicant’s candor throughout the pardon process, remorse and atonement for his or her crimes, acceptance of responsibility for the conduct, post-conviction character, reputation in his or her community including community service, the nature and seriousness of the offense and whether it involved any identifiable victims.”


Including the Office of the Pardon Attorney in the pardoning process was initially thought to be a way to remove the influence of politics from the system. But under closer inspection, perhaps the move has done little to remove the influence that race can have in deciding who gets pardoned and who gets penalized.


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(Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Written by Andre Showell


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