The pardon process relies on the recommendations of a special office of the White House, which takes a number of factors (not skin color) into account overtly, including things like level of remorse or financial or family factors. The process was, wisely one would have thought, depoliticized by George Bush at the beginning of his first term, so that the professional pardon lawyers’ recommendations are routinely followed, plus or minus only small variations.
So, we therefore know that the fact that a white person is 400% more likely to be pardoned than a black person is not because of some yahoo racist president or evil chief of staff. Rather, it’s just how the legal system turns out.
Propublica did the study that gives us these results.
White criminals seeking presidential pardons over the past decade have been nearly four times as likely to succeed as minorities, a ProPublica examination has found.
Blacks have had the poorest chance of receiving the president’s ultimate act of mercy, according to an analysis of previously unreleased records and related data.
Current and former officials at the White House and Justice Department said they were surprised and dismayed by the racial disparities, which persist even when factors such as the type of crime and sentence are considered.
“I’m just astounded by those numbers,” said Roger Adams, who served as head of the Justice Department’s pardons office from 1998 to 2008. He said he could think of nothing in the office’s practices that would have skewed the recommendations. “I can recall several African Americans getting pardons.”
He did not mention whether or not there were any black people using his bathroom at the moment.
… applicants whose offense was older than 20 years had the best odds of a pardon. Married people, those who received probation rather than prison time, and financially stable applicants also fared better.
From this, one might ask if black applicants were more likely to be in a “less pardonable” group, but that is not the case. Even when these factors were accounted for, “race” turns out to be a strong predictor of getting a pardon.
The most striking disparity involved African Americans, who make up 38 percent of the federal prison population and have historically suffered from greater financial and marital instability. Of the nearly 500 cases in ProPublica’s sample, 12 percent of whites were pardoned, as were 10 percent of Hispanics.
None of the 62 African Americans in the random sample received a pardon.
The number of blacks in the sample who were pardoned was so low (zero) that special sampling magic had to be done to estimate over the larger number of pardons during the eight study years what the rate of African American pardon actually is. It turns out to be between 2 and 4 percent. Putting this another way, if you are a white applicant, you’ve got a better than one in three chance of mercy, if you are Hispanic, it drops to one in ten, and if you are black, you are a snowball. In hell.
Adams, the head of the pardons office under Bush, said applicants were not penalized based on race. In fact, Adams went out of his way, he said, to help black applicants.
“People in general more and more feel that it is appropriate to give extra consideration to a member of a minority group,” he said.
Applicants are not asked about their race. But race is listed in many of the law enforcement documents collected for the application, including pre-sentence reports, rap sheets and Federal Bureau of Prisons records.
So, it is not really happening, and they would not do that. But it is and they do.
One way to get at the underlying problem could be to match similar cases and see how different people who happen to have different amounts of melanin in their skin were treated, all else being equal. But it is hard to get parallel matching cases. But there are some.
Denise Armstea, African American, owned a beauty salon in Little Rock. From the outset of her career as a hair stylist, she was good with hair but lousy with accounting, and got in trouble with the IRS.
In 1994, the federal government accused Armstead…of failing to report $32,000 in income over four years. She hired a lawyer and fought the charges, ultimately getting them reduced to a single count of under-reporting her income in 1989.
Her lawyer, a former Internal Revenue Service employee, advised that a trial would cost more than the $3,000 fine, she said. In a plea bargain, she received three years’ probation and paid the fine in installments.
Margaret Leggett and her husband are white and also live in Little Rock got in trouble for renting an apartment with a false name and creating a false bank account and Social Security number, and using these fake identities to file for several fake tax refunds, bilking the IRS and the taxpayers out of over 25,000 dollars. Margaret pled guilty and was sent to prison for three years, serving only three months. Her husband paid a fine and spent 15 years in the stir.
Later, both applied for a pardon. Both served their time with good behavior and accepted responsibility for their actions in the courtroom at the time of sentencing.
Guess who got the pardon. The white lady who was a criminal. The black lady who appears to have only made a mistake was not granted a pardon. Oh, and office of pardons did not even bother telling the black lady that her pardon was rejected in 2002. She found out when a reporter approached her recently.
What I find most interesting about this story is that everyone is looking at the data, the realities, the study, the numbers, and the outcomes, and is acting fairly surprised that our system of criminal justice, and more broadly, our society, has inherent race biases that are perhaps subtle but very ubiquitous and extremely effective. It is almost like a road that has a lot of accidents in the morning and no one can figure out why because another nearby identical road has none. Then someone notices that during rush hour all the drivers are blinded by the sunrise in the accident-rich road but not the other. All the details add up to no explanation for a blatant outcome. All the details except for the one blinding you.