Journalism in the Public Interest

The Kind of Journalism That Demands Action

Several steps could solve the racial disparity in presidential pardons that our joint project with The Washington Post has exposed—starting with a requirement that any member of Congress who writes on behalf of a pardon applicant disclose campaign donations.


(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Once in a great while, journalists unearth a story that shocks the conscience and demands immediate action. Today's article on the racial disparities in the awarding of presidential pardons is one such instance.

Published in collaboration with The Washington Post, the story discloses for the first time that whites seeking pardons are nearly four times as likely to succeed as people of color. Sophisticated statistical analysis shows that this disparity cannot be explained by such factors as age, marital status, type of crime or sentence.

The president's authority to pardon criminals, as Dafna Linzer and Jennifer LaFleur point out, is one of the essential powers of the chief executive, enshrined in the Constitution at its inception. The Framers accorded presidents this king-like authority because they knew there would be cases in which the judiciary erred or was influenced by passions of the moment. Recent presidents have drifted far from that ideal.

Linzer and LaFleur's reporting shows a claim of innocence is virtually disqualifying. Instead of using their powers as a remedy for unfair prosecutions, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have largely delegated their pardon authority to a Justice Department office staffed by career prosecutors. Roger Adams, the man who headed the Office of the Pardon Attorney for most of the Bush presidency, said race was not a factor in assessing who to recommend for a pardon.

But statistics and records suggest that Justice Department officials are doing something in their work that decisively favors white applicants. Adams said that when he sifted pardons, he tried to assess the criminal's "attitude" toward the justice system. Such a subjective standard opens the door to possible bias. Do whites and blacks have the same attitude of "respect" towards cops, courts and judges? Does that come through in the 23-page pardon application?

Justice Department officials insist the office does have clear standards. Pardon applicants are required to demonstrate "stability" -- defined as long-term marriages, low credit-card and bank debts, and a solid job history. Never mind that many Americans in today's economy would have trouble meeting these tests. The documents reviewed by Linzer and LaFleur show that whites who failed to meet some of these standards were approved while blacks with similar applications were rejected. It is clear that whatever rules exist, they are inconsistently applied.

The pardon office is an ideal subject for investigative reporting since it does not explain its decisions, gets little if any congressional oversight, and was, until recently, able to shield its key data from the Freedom of Information Act.

Many people reading this story will conclude that they are looking at the face of racism in the 21st century -- not Bull Connor unleashing attack dogs but bureaucrats in a room making subtle distinctions with life-changing implications. Fred Fielding, the White House counsel under Bush, said he believed the process was colorblind and that race was not disclosed to any of those involved. This is untrue. In fact, an attorney in the pardon office can learn the race of every applicant from the documents assembled from law-enforcement files.

When we opened the doors at ProPublica nearly four years ago, we vowed to include in each story possible solutions to the problems we uncovered. That proved a difficult task in some cases.

When it comes to pardons, there are concrete solutions to many of the problems outlined in today's report, some of which have already been studied by the Obama administration.

The president, for example, could immediately require any member of Congress who writes on behalf of a pardon applicant to disclose campaign donations received from the criminal or immediate family.

Attorney General Eric Holder could order an immediate review of pardons granted by past presidents to see when and under what circumstances the racial disparities arose. ProPublica laboriously tracked down a random sample of nearly 500 pardon decisions and spent months researching the racial background, criminal record and other aspects of each one. The Justice Department has the data to do this for every pardon case -- a study that would be even more definitive.

Finally, President Obama could restart the work undertaken by Gregory Craig, his former White House counsel, toward creating an independent group to advise the White House on pardon applications. Such a step would parallel what is done in some states, and would likely remove some of the pro-prosecution leanings of the current process. Specifically, the president could announce that claims of innocence will not disqualify those seeking pardons. This could be done by Executive Order (with a tiny shift in appropriated money by Congress).

Over the past several decades, the United States has reacted to rising crime rates by arresting, charging and convicting growing numbers of people. That increased emphasis on incarceration has been accompanied by a steady drop in the number of presidential pardons.

That can change.

Steiger is ProPublica's editor-in-chief, and Engelberg is the managing editor.

Just another story and more statistics that shows institutional racism at the core and for which nothing is going to change. We as a nation, have known for a long time in our hearts that it goes on, the overt and sometimes covert racism, as in the stop and frisk program in NYC, which impacts far more people of color than whites. It looks like “white privilege” is so ingrained and insidious in the justice system, and for that matter choose any institution and the same will be true, look at the black farmers who won a settlment within the last couple of years. And then just listen to the arrogant a**hole Congressman Steve King start talking about “reparations” nonsense after hearing of the settlement.
I certainly hope that I as a white man, do not contribute to this kind of in an unknowing, or have an unawareness in myself that causes me to use this “white privilege” I have been born with. I can only empathize with those whose history, whose grandparents and great grandparents who were slaves and equal to a piece of furniture to the white bosses, and in some cases Native Americans who owned them. It is those who are of the “white privilege” class who have come up with this nonsensical term “reverse” racism, what a crock, this, from people who have not been oppressed, while those former oppressed slaves and their descendants even after the amendment passed in the 1860s making them equal citizens, no longer 3/5 s of a person, that had to endure the Jim Crow era which kept them 2nd class citizens for a generation. Reverse racism my ass. I’m sure some are going to start using those terms again in light of this finding.

I am so horrified, I can hardly breathe.  ProPublica’s figures are damning!
Everybody is passing the buck to everybody else.  Can I believe the shocked, shocked! denials from the higher-ups who say they didn’t know…

Just another nail in the ethical coffin of Obama, who is a terrible disappointment to those who believed his soaring campaign oratory.

He just does not care about anything except being re-elected.  True, he is the lesser of two evils, considering the zoo on the other side.
But he still could have taken more interest in this shocking situation.
Maybe (if) he even bothers to see the ProPublica report, his Admistration can come up with a more ethical way to overcome the blatant racism spelled out in the report.

Maybe after (if?) he

this must change, only we can make this happen.we must focus on what is important.people matter!

Walter D. Shutter, Jr.

Dec. 4, 2011, 7:22 p.m.

I was especially appalled to learn that a claim of innocence is a practical disqualification for a pardon.  This assumes that no innocent persons are ever wrongfully convicted.  The same paradigm applies to parole; no parole absent an admission of guilt.

The problem, as I see it, is that the Department of Justice is reviewing their own work and they are loath to denigrate it. Appplications for pardon should not be reviewed by the DOJ.  This is Soviet style justice.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Presidential Pardons

Presidential Pardons: Shades of Mercy

White criminals seeking presidential pardons are nearly four times as likely to succeed as people of color, a ProPublica examination has found.

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