Why clemency is good

Have a look at David Leonhardt’s recent NY Times newsletter, which posits that executive clemency is a critical component of our current criminal justice system. The newsletter came in the wake of scathing criticism of Pres. Trump’s use of clemency to help his political friends.

Approximately two million Americans are  behind bars, giving the United States one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. High rates of imprisonment are due to extraordinarily long sentences, even for nonviolent crimes; arbitrary systems of parole; and wrongful convictions. Clemency can help.

Leonhardt cites as a prime example of the positive power of clemency one of our cases, that of Felipe Rodriguez. Felipe was freed in January 2017 after we teamed up with the Innocence Project to petition Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his release via a commutation of his sentence (clemency comes in two flavors: a pardon erases the conviction as though it never happened; a commutation reduces the person’s sentence). Felipe always maintained his innocence and the governor freed him in part because of serious questions about the integrity of his conviction, and in part because of his phenomenal prison record, which included construction projects, editing a newsletter, and counseling serial killers.

Gov. Cuomo and Felipe Rodriguez

Gov. Cuomo greets Felipe Rodriguez a year after granting him executive clemency. Felipe was fully exonerated in December.

After Felipe’s release, he met with a top Queens assistant district attorney and campaigned for his conviction to be vacated altogether, which happened on December 30, 2019. Leonhardt credits the clemency, which was a key piece of Felipe Rodriguez’s ultimate exoneration. He writes: “Only after Governor Andrew Cuomo commuted his sentence in 2016 — bringing more attention to the case — did police locate a file in the archives that helped clear Rodriguez.”

Indeed, while Trump’s recent interest in criminal justice issues may be for all the wrong reasons, his grants of executive clemency and criticism of long prison sentences are welcome. If the Department of Justice treated everyone the way they treat Trump’s friends, the system would be far more reasonable and just. Leonhardt is right to promote clemency, for whatever reason it is granted.

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