Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Thanks for nothing, Greg Abbott: Why conservatives should demand 'industrial-scale' clemency

UPDATE/CORRECTION: The Dallas News' Brandi Grissom emailed to say that, "Abbott did issue pardons this week, a whopping four of them, but he didn't put out a press release. Here's my story." Grits apologizes for the error; I'd been checking the governor's site every day all December for pardon news, but clearly I need better sources, like Brandi.

Original post, corrected:

Clemency Grinch, Pardon Scrooge - pick your seasonal epithet, but Texas Governor Greg Abbott is about to complete his first year as governor without exercising once having barely exercised one of the handful of core functions assigned to his office in the state constitution: Executive Clemency.

Grits has been waiting to see if the governor would issue a handful of symbolic pardons around Christmas, as was his predecessor's wont, but so far, no dice. I'm not a great fan of the Christmastime pardon tradition, but at least it acknowledges the gubernatorial function. So far, Greg Abbott has shirked this responsibility. To his discredit, in Abbott's first year as governor, Barack Obama has granted clemency to more Texans than him, and Obama's clemency record is abysmal.

It's not like the Texas governor really does much: Sign or veto bills, make appointments, and clemency really are the main things on his plate under the state constitution. But one of those three has been all but abandoned.

The American Conservative this week published an article lamenting "small trickles of clemency" by President Obama and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo "where what is demanded is a rushing, roaring pipeline scaled to the globally unprecedented size of our prison population and incarceration rate. We need industrial-scale clemency."

 As the author recognized, "the real action is at the state level, which handles most policing, sentencing, and imprisoning." In this discussion, former Gov. Rick Perry made an appearance among "recent governors [who] have distinguished themselves with their appalling miserliness." Citing a data point which originated with research on Grits, he declared that "Rick Perry appointed a clemency board of tough-on-crime hardcases, then rejected two-thirds of their pardon and commutation endorsements."

Clemency these days mostly comes up in the context of capital murder and innocence cases. But this article suggests that governors embrace "industrial-scale" clemency aimed at reversing mass incarceration.
Reversing course on hyper-incarceration and clemency will be a generational project, and an Augean one at that. Judges and prosecutors are not the most self-effacing career group, and many would sooner eat their Civil Procedure books than admit error. Even with DNA evidence and a verified confession exonerating the five youths convicted of raping and assaulting the “Central Park jogger” in 1989, former prosecutor Linda Fairstein still insists she got the right culprits. But for most people, clemency in cases of judicial and prosecutorial error is a no brainer: the law’s finality should not come at the expense of justice.

The type of clemency we need today, however, is to remedy a problem several orders of magnitude larger, admitting not legal or judicial error but political or legislative disaster. A rushing, roaring clemency pipeline would be an explicit recognition that the various state and federal tough-on-crime policies, virtually all of which passed with broad bipartisan support, were dead wrong.
The article supplies an overview of past acts of mass clemency and the recent re-embrace of the pardon power across partisan lines by a handful of American governors:
U.S. history turns out to be generously littered with acts of mass clemency. In the 1930s, Mississippi Governor Mike Conner went to Parchman Farm, the state penitentiary, and held impromptu “mercy courts” that freed dozens of African-American prisoners, in an act that entered national folklore—as did Texas Governor Pat Neff’s pardon in 1925 of Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, who issued his clemency request in song. In the 20th century, Governors Lee Cruce of Oklahoma, Winthrop Rockefeller of Arkansas, and Toney Anaya of New Mexico all commuted their states’ death rows down to zero upon leaving office. 

Among presidents, according to political scientist P.S. Ruckman Jr’s excellent blog Pardon Power, Abraham Lincoln granted clemency every single month of his administration as an act of mercy and a canny political strategy. Woodrow Wilson, though a teetotaler himself, pardoned hundreds convicted of booze-related infractions to signal his disapproval of Prohibition. (Many of these examples are drawn from Marie Gottschalk’s new book Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics, the best single-volume overview of the ongoing crisis in American criminal justice.)

Today, even as clashing currents push at the same time for greater mercy and greater harshness, an affinity for the pardon power has trespassed wantonly over the country’s regional, ideological, and partisan divides. Recent governors who have pardoned and commuted with magnanimity include Arkansas Republican Mike Huckabee (1,058 pardons in his 10 years in office), California Democrat Jerry Brown (83 pardons on last Easter Sunday alone) and Michigan Democrat Jennifer Granholm (182 commutations in her two terms). Haley Barbour pardoned 203 prisoners at the end of his second term as the Republican governor of Mississippi, an act that briefly became a national non-scandal eagerly covered by the national media sniffing around for gotchas. (Thank you, o “liberal” media.)
Considering the increasing number of low-risk elderly folk in state prisons, there's even an argument for expanded clemency on fiscal conservative grounds:
Our incarcerated population is also aging rapidly, and though older prisoners have far lower recidivism rates, few states are availing themselves of geriatric release. For instance, Virginia in 2012 granted geriatric release to less than 1 percent of about 800 prisoners eligible, according to the state parole board. Meanwhile, as the Virginian Pilot reported, “during the same period, 84 inmates died in state prisons.” Running high-security nursing homes is neither compassionate nor fiscally sound—another reason to restore and expand clemency.
Bottom line:
What is needed is a restoration of the kind of clemency that was once the everyday norm in this country, expanded to meet the needs of our enormous 21st-century prison population. There will surely be stentorian howling that industrial-scale clemency is the invasive hand of overweening government power. These fault-finders ought to be reminded that our incarceration regime is on a scale rarely seen in human history: our only competitors are third-century BC “legalist” China; the late, off-the-rails Roman Empire; and the Soviet Union from 1930-55. Routinized clemency on a grand scale will be necessary to tame this beast.
Greg Abbott has yet to embrace barely embraced his clemency power even on a symbolic level, much less on an industrial scale. But what's at stake is more than the fates of individuals who benefit from executive mercy, concludes the American Conservative piece, but rather the issue speaks to who we are as a people and the hypocrisy of mass incarceration in the self-styled "land of the free":
According to Shakespeare’s most famous courtroom speech, mercy “blesseth him that gives and him that takes: ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes the throned monarch better than his crown.” With an expansion of the pardon power, we have the opportunity to rule ourselves as monarchs, with all the magnanimity and grace that implies. Or we can remain a nation of vindictive jailers that lectures the rest of the world about freedom.
Since Rick Perry issued his last pardons on December 19, 2013, it's now been it took more than two full years since before any Texan received the benefit of state-level executive clemency, and then the governor's mercy was limited to four, unheralded souls. Grits isn't sanguine Greg Abbott will ever ramp up to "industrial scale" clemency given this tepid start, but that's what's needed.


Anonymous said...


What's the Texas procedure for clemency and/or pardons? Is the parole board required to first recommend individuals before a pardon is approved or can the governor simply grant one as the president can for federal violations?

Thanks and a merry Christmas (or happy holidays, whichever you prefer) to you and yours! (And remember, keep mass in Christmas - or whatever.) :~)

Gritsforbreakfast said...

It's definitely over-restrictive. See here for the requirements for different types of clemency. There's a lot of bureaucracy designed to prevent people from applying.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

And yes, the Board of pardons and paroles must approve clemency first. But they'll do it when the governor wants it done. They're his appointees. OTOH, under Rick Perry he rejected two thirds of those the board recommended.

Greg said...

All of which ignores the question of how many recommendations for clemency has the board made...

Gritsforbreakfast said...

That data hasn't been published for 2015, Greg. In fy 2014 the board recommended 17, which was their lowest since at least the turn of the century; they recommended 46 the year before. For prior years, see here.

Unknown said...

What do you expect? Abbott is a disgrace. An embarassment. He is more than useless. He is dangerous.
He killed a bill that would have helped doctors, law enforcement and the mentally ill. In effect, he made a medically-based decisions without a medical license.

Are Texans aware of how crazy, arrogant and delusional this guy looks to the rest of the world?

He vetoed Senate Bill 359, that would have given hospitals the authority to hold a patient for four hours if doctors consider that patient to be a danger to himself or others. The bill had full support of the Texas Medical Association and the Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians. Four hours folks! Just the time to think and stabilize the patient. He took that authority away from hospitals and doctors.

The bill had sailed through the House and the Senate. But Abbott caved in and killed it, probably because of the lobbying efforts of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights — an organization supported by the Church of Scientology that we all know does not believe in mental illness and psychiatry. As a result, today people having a serious mental health episode and who present an immediate danger to themselves or others are left on the street because the hospital has no authority to hold them. Actually, most end up in prison.

Impulse control is an issue for some mentally ill folks having an episode. Untreated, they may act impulsively and get arrested, if not killed, by a police force who is untrained to recognize their symptoms. Conversely, they may hurt someone. People will be harmed because of this. People will die because of this. And so a person with a biological disorder of the brain goes to jail instead of getting treatment. Police officers will have to deal with the outcome.

The veto of His Highness the Supreme Imbecille of Texas, has added to an already existing problem: jails having become the new psych hospitals.

I guess he thinks one will be able to "pray the crazyness away", just like the rest of most Republicans do. That is, of course, after having collectively prayed for gays "to recover", and having cast the demons out of anybody who believes differently than they do: the darn "bleeding-heart liberals".

Anonymous said...

Last May, Abbott made a huge blunder when he ordered the Texas State Guard to “monitor” the U.S. military while it conducts training exercises known as Jade Helm 15. - He seems to have thaught the feds were trying to take over Texas and impose martial law. Apparently, he was also trying to appease his party’s paranoid fringe elements. He became the joke of night-time television and alienated both Democrats and Republicans. Folks in the military and veterans were dismayed.

This guy is a lunatic. I think he is also a mentor of Ted Cruz. We cannot expect much from him except to do more damage to the already poor image that the world has of Texas in terms of poor education, human rights violations and bigotry. This view may be biased, but it exists. Bush and Perry were great contributors to it.

Anonymous said...

As attorney general Abbott clashed with his own Republican party in the legislature. He urged lawmakers to adopt interim court-drawn redistricting maps as permanent, thus helping manipulate election results. This is not good. Conservative Texans are usually quite unforgiving! Abbott follows this trend by not pardoning anybody.

Abbott was not a good ethical choice for Texas. We are reaping the fruits of our voting.

Anonymous said...

Look, Texas is a one party state. Except for a 15 year period ending in 2000, it has ALWAYS been a one party state.

The problem with one party governance is that a minority of voters can actually rule. Example: The Texas GOP is identified with about 60% of the voters. The Tea party is identified, again, with about 60% of the GOP.

Result? 60% X 60% = 36% !!!

36% of the nut cases in Texas, RUN Texas. That is the current situation and it is the reason we need to be concerned.

Abbott is the nut-in-chief.

Anonymous said...

As of 2013:
Texas ranks first in executions.
Texas ranks first in the number of uninsured (this has improved because of Obamacare).
Texas ranks second in food insecurity.
Texas ranks last in mental health expenditures.

Texas was labeled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation as "the worst state in America to be a child."
Texas is 47th in tax expenditures that directly benefit their citizens.
Texas ranks last in the percent of population that has a high school diploma.
Texas ranks last in Workers' compensation coverage.

Texas ranks 4th in the percentage of children living in poverty.
Texas ranks 49th in the number of poor people covered by Medicaid.
Texas ranks 48th in the number of people covered by employer-based health insurance.
Texas ranks 49th in per capita spending on Medicaid.

Texas ranks last in the percentage of non-elderly women with health insurance.
Texas ranks last in the percentage of women receiving prenatal care in the first trimester.
Texas ranks 49th in the average credit score of Americans.

Texas ranks 1st in the amount of carbon dioxide emissions.

Abbott has made things worse.

Anonymous said...

"So long and thanks for all the fish" This blog and many of the posters have finally gone so far left I can scarcely stomach the vitriol projected toward anyone who may believe that incarceration is a necessity when individuals refuse to live within social norms, prey on the vulnerable, and generally live destructive violent drug induced lives.

As with many other tenets of the liberal philosophy, the mistaken belief that there should be no consequences for ANY destructive behavior that inflicts misery on others is on parade in these pages.

Please feel free to spew vitriol over this post to your hearts content. I have no further interest is listening to the relatives and supporters of those who contribute nothing to our society and leave nothing but destruction in their selfish wake. Enjoy your Christmas Holiday as you whine, complain, denigrate, and blame others for your misery.

Gadfly said...

Dunno if the Federal Bureau of Prisons has any input on actual clemency, but when it comes to parole, for elderly or near elderly inmates? It's got a history of "dumping" theoretical prison lifers as soon as they're old enough for Medicare, to save medical bills in the prison system.

Unknown said...

@ 12:31:00 PM - Reducing levels of incarceration is an idea whose time has come. It's a bipartisan agenda. Liberals want to do it for social reasons, conservatives for financial reasons. Over-incarceration has proven to be a gigantic monster that needs to be reduced to manageable levels.

From an article:

"Liberals have long advocated prison reforms like reduced sentence lengths and alternatives to incarceration. Recently, however, conservatives have put these ideas on the congressional agenda—and their inspiration comes from that bastion of tough-on-crime conservatism, Texas.

Surprising? Perhaps. But seeing this coming didn’t require any sort of crystal ball. One had only to notice the forces driving every trend today: less money, higher expectations, and lower “weight.” Around the world and especially in the United States, both the public and private sectors have been under pressure since the Great Recession to cut costs and make the most of constrained resources. At the same time, consumers have become accustomed to expect better and better performance for their dollars."

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

@ 12:31:00 PM

Liberals have not been lenient on crime. The rise toward greater and more wide-reaching forms of incarceration started in the in the late 1960s, continuing through liberal Presidents like Clinton and Obama. Actually, they went too far. So, please, don't make silly remarks that liberals don't want criminal behavior to be punished.

You can read more here:

ckikerintulia said...

I note that half of those pardoned had been convicted on weapons charges years ago. I'm surprised the governor and Board of Pardons could not find more than two who had been convicted on these kinds of charges. With the current wild west weapons laws supported by the governor and enacted by the leg. I would have thought he could have found, and pardoned several hundred by going way back in history. Maybe even a few posthumous pardons. My cynicism is showing.

Anonymous said...

As for releasing the elderly just because they are elderly is preposterous.

I helped get an elderly woman convicted for 10 years for financial exploitation of the elderly. That's how she had always made a living. She never worked. She would move in with older people, get on their checking accounts and bleed them dry. She even married a man, then after he divorced her as fast as he could, she remarried him 49 days later by proxy without his knowledge. When he died, she claimed his VA and SSA benefits as his wife. Before she was incarcerated she had received close to $125,000 from his benefits. This man was a POW in WWII and had been marched over 500 miles by the Nazis in horrid condiditions. Do you think she deserved his benefits at the expense of the taxpayers?

If she is released just because she is elderly, she will do it again. This is all she knows how to do to make money. She's a serial financial exploiter. And she is very good at it. And like most criminals, this was the only time she got caught and prosecuted. But not the first crime she committed.

Just because they are elderly doesn't mean that they are innocent and acceptable to society.

And if you met her your first impression would be that she is just a sweet little old lady and you would be so, so wrong.

And lastly, we couldn't prove that she murdered her last victim because the evidence "was lost". But he was dead in less than 3 months after she got signing authority on his financial accounts.

Anonymous said...

The ugliest thing I have seen is a person with no compassion.

Anonymous said...

That describes the woman I mentioned above to a T. But if you meant it for me, I have compassion. I work with criminal defendents all the time. Have assisted with getting many off.

But this woman is very very cold. Hopefully she will do her full 10 years in prison.