The criminal justice system is, by the admission of many liberal politicians, in desperate need of change. Prisons are overcrowded as a result of mass incarceration; minimum sentencing policies can put people behind bars for years over a small mistake; and the racialized enforcement of laws has led to contemptible disparities in the way people of different backgrounds are treated.
And while those are critical concerns, there’s one really important issue we’re not talking about: clemency.
Clemency is a public official’s ability to pardon or moderate a prisoner’s punishment; it is wielded either by the governor (for state offenses) or the president (for federal offenses) and can either reduce, end, or forgive a criminal sentence. Legal scholars widely consider clemency to be an important check on the judicial system, as it corrects mistakes made in the conviction process, can assert a prisoner’s innocence, allows for the retroactive application of policies which remedy previous unjust or too harsh laws, and can amend flaws in the sentencing process when prisoners receive punishments disproportionate to the offense.
As a result of the politicization of clemency proceedings and the ever-popular “tough on crime” stance, however, the use of the gubernatorial clemency power– especially in the state of Missouri under Jay Nixon– is becoming less and less frequent. Essentially, governors are now overly worried about the fallout that could result if any one of the inmates for whom they elect to use their clemency power recidivate, and the press uses the opportunity to drag the governor’s name through the mud with accusations that the pardon allowed said person to commit their crime.
As a result, governors hesitate to use their powers of clemency, particularly during times of political difficulty for them or if they’re in the midst of a re-election campaign. That means that more and more appeals for justice– frequently from people who have exhausted their appeals process, may not have adequate legal representation. Or, legal pleas from people who were convicted as a result of policies or stigmas that have changed drastically today such that their trial result would likely differ if retried– go unread and unanswered.
Consider this: Jay Nixon has granted clemency only some 15 times during his two terms (2008-2016) while Pat Quinn of Illinois granted over 1,752 clemency pardons while in office from 2009-2015. Quinn also denied 2,000 clemency requests, which is important to note because that means he read and responded to over 3,700 clemency requests… versus the MO inmates languishing in limbo because they haven’t received any word on their petitions.
I’ve personally had the opportunity to interact directly with this uncompromising, senseless brick wall through my time interning with The WILLOW Project. WILLOW is a nonprofit organization that provides pro bono legal services to women who are currently wrongfully incarcerated for crimes that arose from family and domestic violence. At this moment, the organization represents three women– Angel Stewart, Amelia Bird, and Amanda Busse— in line with its mission to improve the lives of society’s “forgotten women” who are denied full access to the “justice system as a result of poverty, oppression, exploitation, and other injustices.”
Just take a brief look at these women’s stories to understand the injustices dealt to them:
- Angel Charlene Stewart was 19 when she was kidnapped and physically, sexually, and mentally terrorized by two men in Iowa. Her kidnappers also kidnapped and murdered two elderly women— one in Iowa, one in Missouri— and took her along on their crime spree while also holding her one year old son hostage. When police found them, they regarded her solely as a victim, but later charged her alongside her captors. Threatened with the death penalty, she eventually pled guilty to kidnapping and received a life sentence with the possibility of parole. A survivor of a lifetime of physical and sexual abuse, she is functionally illiterate with severe learning issues and limited reasoning ability: Angel Stewart did not have the mental capacity to voluntarily make such a life-altering choice or to even read/comprehend her plea agreement.
- After a lifetime of physical and sexual abuse, 16 year old Amelia Bird was charged with crimes for which she had little to no responsibility; she had complained to her then ex-boyfriend about the abuse she suffered, and he then broke into her house and shot both of her parents to try to win her affection. The prosecution in this case was overzealous, as she was overcharged for her limited role in complaining about ongoing abuse in her household. Charged alongside the ex-boyfriend, and threatened with the death penalty, Amelia was pressured to take a plea to second-degree murder and first-degree assault, receiving two consecutive life sentences.
- A victim of physical and sexual violence throughout her life at the hands of her father and “husband” to whom her father sold her, Amanda Busse was wrongfully implicated and convicted of a crime she did not commit. Since her arrest in 2003, she has maintained her innocence and continuously denies being at the scene of the crime. Amanda Busse is factually innocent; she did not commit the crime for which she is charged, was not present when it was committed, and was never implicated except in a retaliatory move almost seven year later by her brother who also was not present during the commission of the crime and who has since recanted several times. Furthermore, her defense at trial was a mere three minutes, insufficient time to mount a meaningful defense when a woman’s life hung in the balance.
Anne Geraghty-Rathert, the Executive Director of The WILLOW Project, explains:
People fall through the cracks. And not only in going to prison, but in the larger sense; society fails people. Our clients have fallen through the cracks every step of the way. The education system has failed them, their families have failed them, neighbors have failed them– it’s incredible the things that our clients have suffered. And so, of course, they ended up incarcerated. It almost seems like prison is the inevitability in a system that doesn’t look out for people…
[And] the ways in which violence permeated and destroyed their [our clients’] lives are unfortunately far more broad and universal than we like to think. WILLOW could easily have a thousand clients. We only have three, but you need to know that The WILLOW Project is standing for even more than just Amanda, Amelia, and Angel and their cases. It stands for all the people– and particularly women– who suffer incredible amounts of violence throughout their lives and are disregarded by everyone– ignored, disbelieved, chastened, treated badly, embarrassed, humiliated, victimized. And they deserve justice.”
Why talk about clemency now?
Because with gubernatorial elections coming up, now is a critical time for WILLOW and others seeking clemency. Nixon has significantly fewer political pressures on him now that he’s leaving office, and it gives him the opportunity for more free reign on his decisions without fear of the publicity consequences. And that means that now is a critical time to apply pressure in an appeal to Nixon’s morality and humanity to respond to– and ideally grant– Angel’s, Amelia’s, and Amanda’s clemency petitions, among the thousands of other petitions currently unanswered. So, if these women’s stories moved you to action, please write a letter to Governor Nixon imploring him to review their cases.
The proximity of gubernatorial elections is also critical in that if Nixon does not exercise his clemency power before leaving office, I would hope that those petitions wouldn’t fall on deaf ears with the next governor. In fact, a lot of my voting decisions August 2 were colored by questions about whether, as an elected official, the candidate would contribute to or further hinder clemency petitioners’ quests for justice. And I encourage you, when election time comes, to also consider the importance of clemency power when you cast your ballot in November.
So please, the next time you’re watching a campaign ad or considering your ballot, think about this. Remember that “tough on crime” rhetoric is dangerous because it frequently undercuts presumptions of innocence in court by pushing prosecutors and state officials to try for convictions rather than justice. Remember that when a campaign ad brags that a candidate has “put away X number of criminals” that that candidate is the one who defined them as criminals and if convictions, not justice, was their goal, then the truth may not coincide with such an assessment. Remember that not every person in prison received justice because too many people are innocent, too many people did not have fair trials, and too many people received overly harsh sentences. Remember that people who are incarcerated are still people and every bit as worthy of compassion, empathy, and dignity.