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Clemency - An Important Justice Tool

Last week Governor Ted Strickland granted clemency in 78 criminal cases. Although he denied clemency in three-quarters of the 300 cases he made decisions on, reader responses at the online Dispatch and Plain Dealer sites were harsh. "I'm sickened at this," one person wrote. "Who does Strickland think he is?" "Doesn't he have better things to do?" someone else asked, "than to be second guessing our judicial system?" These comments and others like them highlight three basic misunderstandings. First, a lot of people think clemency is just a fancy word for coddling criminals. That's nonsense. Most of the people pardoned have already served all their time so their pardons won't shave off any. They are productive, responsible citizens now. Unfortunately, because of their records, they are second-class citizens, subject to being denied certain jobs, having occupational licenses revoked; having driver's licenses suspended or revoked, denied education; and more. One summary of Ohio's so-called collateral sanctions runs 85 pages long. Restoring the full benefits of citizenship to people who've paid their dues and play by the rules is not coddling. It's common decency and common sense. A second claim you'll hear is that clemency undermines the integrity of the justice system by overturning judge and jury decisions. But allowing bad decisions to stand is what really undercuts the integrity of the system. That's why we insist that a criminal defendant's guilt be established beyond a reasonable doubt. It's why we have appeals courts. In a criminal justice system run by human beings, one that processes hundreds of thousands of people every year, we will make mistakes. Eyewitnesses identify the wrong people. Police mishandle evidence. Forensic testing is done improperly. Informants lie. People provide false confessions. Judges give different sentences for the same crimes. Under these conditions, the clemency power gives us one last chance to put the "justice" back into criminal justice. Finally, some of Governor Strickland's critics say he granted clemency in some cases because it was politically expedient to do so. Excuse me? In this endless era of knee-jerk, tough-on-crime posturing, the sad truth is that governors with the moral and political fortitude to take their clemency power and responsibility seriously are a vanishing breed because they know doing so is a political loser. We have over 7 million people in prison, on probation or on parole in this country. Let's suppose, very conservatively, that 1 percent of them are innocent - that's 70,000 people. How many more have been in prison years too long for minor nonviolent offenses? How many millions more bear the heavy burden of collateral sanctions, years after they paid their prison debt? And how many of these folks are among the 400 cases still sitting on the governor desk right now?