Stateline Story

As Their Terms End, Governors Show Mercy to Lawbreakers

  • December 20, 2010
  • By John Gramlich
Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell has granted 1,059 pardons during his eight years in office — more than double the state's previous record of 475 by Governor Milton Shapp in the 1970s, according to The Patriot News of Harrisburg . With such a high tally, Rendell becomes the most pardon-issuing governor in modern Pennsylvania history, the paper reports.

But Rendell isn't the only governor who has used the power of the executive office to show forgiveness. In Michigan, Governor Jennifer Granholm has commuted 179 prisoners' sentences over the last eight years — far fewer than Rendell, but still more than any governor in that state in decades, according to the Detroit Free Press .

Granholm "believes in a deliberative, judicious and limited use of commutation authority," a spokeswoman told the Free Press . "Her commutation decisions reflect her desire to protect public safety without ignoring the need to reduce prison costs and bring Michigan's sentencing policies in line with other states."

There are several ways governors (or presidents) can show lawbreakers mercy. Commuting a sentence involves setting currently imprisoned inmates free, while pardoning an offender usually applies to those who have already finished their time behind bars but still face the loss of certain rights, such as the right to vote. Both are forms of clemency, or official forgiveness on the part of the state (or federal) government.

Granting clemency is always a touchy political issue for a chief executive, as two recent presidential controversies have made clear. In 2007, President George W. Bush commuted the sentence of Scooter Libby, an adviser to the vice president, after he was convicted in connection with the leaked identity of an undercover CIA agent whose husband had angered the president.  Bush's predecessor in the White House, Bill Clinton, waited until his last day in office to pardon a convicted international financier whose wife had made substantial political donations to the Democratic Party. Both presidential acts of clemency were lambasted at the time as politically motivated abuses of power.

At the state level, governors commonly grant clemency at the end of their term in office. Outgoing governors in Ohio and New York , for example, recently have acted on clemency requests.

In Florida, meanwhile, Governor Charlie Crist pursued one of the most high-profile acts of clemency in the nation earlier this month, when he urged a state board to pardon former Doors singer Jim Morrison, who was convicted of indecent exposure after a raucous concert in Miami in 1969. Crist, a Doors fan, said he wasn't sure that Morrison — who died two years after the concert — "did what he was charged with here," and the state board agreed with him.

"He was a young guy who maybe, or maybe not, made a mistake," Crist told The St. Petersburg Times . "It strikes me that everyone deserves a second chance. You have to have the capacity for forgiveness."