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Details Emerge on Government Study of Presidential Pardons

A review triggered by stories published by ProPublica and The Washington Post will test the effect of race on pardon decisions.

The U.S. Department of Justice has issued a request for proposals for its first-ever in-depth study of presidential pardons, providing fresh details on what it envisions the review will entail.

The agency said it would undertake the study in response to articles published by ProPublica and The Washington Post in December that found white applicants were nearly four times as likely to be pardoned as minorities. African American applicants fared the worst: Just 7 of 189 people pardoned by President George W. Bush were African American. So far, President Obama has pardoned 22 people, including 2 minorities.

ProPublica's analysis showed that other factors also appeared to influence petitioners' success rate. Married applicants were twice as likely to succeed and those with congressional support were three times as likely to receive a pardon.

In June, the Justice Department published an outline of the survey for contractors bidding to conduct it. The research will be expected to "test the primary hypothesis that, all other things being equal, African Americans and other minorities are less likely to progress in the pardon adjudication process than applicants of other races," the outline said.

The government's survey will focus exclusively on pardons, which convey forgiveness for federal crimes, and will not include commutations, which shorten federal prison sentences. Though presidents make the final decisions on petitions for clemency, they rely heavily upon recommendations from the Office of the Pardon Attorney, an arm of the Justice Department, to guide their determinations.

According to the study outline, the Justice Department review will be similar in many regards to the analysis ProPublica conducted for its report.

We examined pardon decisions made between 2001 and 2008. The department's study will extend from 2001 through April 2012. The government's proposal also calls for using a near-identical list of demographic variables — including age, race, ethnicity and gender — to probe what most affects the likelihood of a pardon.

One key difference between the reviews is that the government review will consider the influence of subjective categories, such as an applicant's level of remorse and acceptance of responsibility, on the success of pardon applications, the survey outlines said. It is unclear how researchers will quantify such variables.

The government study also will be overseen by a steering committee that will include staff from the pardons office, giving insiders a hand in the process.

According to the survey outline, the year-long study is expected to launch on Oct. 1, with a budget of $350,000. It is unclear whether the results will be made public, although the department has asked potential bidders to provide a "publishable quality final report."

ProPublica's methodology and findings can be found here.

Jennifer LaFleur, ProPublica's Director of Computer-Assisted Reporting, contributed to this post.

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