Dafna Linzer’s year-long ProPublica investigation into the factors surrounding supposedly color-blind presidential pardons from 1998 to 2008 is certainly one of the more important articles of the year. The bottom line is that white pardon seekers were four times more likely to be granted a pardon than blacks.
ProPublica’s review examined what happened after President George W. Bush decided at the beginning of his first term to rely almost entirely on the recommendations made by career lawyers in the Office of the Pardon Attorney.
The office was given wide latitude to apply subjective standards, including judgments about the “attitude” and the marital and financial stability of applicants. No two pardon cases match up perfectly, but records reveal repeated instances in which white applicants won pardons with transgressions on their records similar to those of blacks and other minorities who were denied.
Senior aides in the Bush White House say the president had hoped to take politics out of the process and avoid a repetition of the Marc Rich scandal, in which the fugitive financier won an eleventh-hour pardon tainted by his ex-wife’s donations to Democratic causes and the Clinton Presidential Library.
Justice Department officials said in a statement Friday that the pardon process takes into account many factors that cannot be statistically measured, such as an applicant’s candor and level of remorse.
“Nonetheless, we take the concerns seriously,” the statement said. “We will continue to evaluate the statistical analysis and, of course, are always working to improve the clemency process and ensure that every applicant gets a fair, merit-based evaluation.”
And given the extreme partisan politicization of the Justice Department under Bush 43, it’s no wonder that “wide latitude” was used to trash black applicants and give white collar whites a pass. Linzer explains this on Rachel Maddow’s show from Monday night:
“You know, they’re looking for the perfect person. They’re looking for this incredibly stable person, this ideal person who will not present a risk to the president. who will not be some person who goes out and commits a crime again. That’s their sense of what they’re looking for. Again, as you said, in each of these cases, we looked at bankruptcies, we looked at liens, tax liens against people. Did they own their own home? All kinds of things.
Each case we found minorities who were struck out who had bankruptcies or other issues. We found african-american applicants who wanted a pardon in order to improve their employment stability and were denied for employment instability. Or seeking a pardon because they want, you know, they want a better job. They want financial stability and denied for financial instability. At the same time we found successful white applicants pardoned by President Bush who had bankruptcies who filed for bankruptcy more than once.
Who were divorced multiple times, who had — for me one of the striking things was language that was used to describe African-Americans who had children outside of a marriage, where those children were described in denial recommendations as illegitimate or born out of wedlock. White successful applicants who had children outside of a marriage, those children were described as having been born from a previous or non-marital relationship, completely different language.”
It very much looks like the language used by these career Justice Department lawyers to describe minority pardon applicants, particularly African-Americans, was filled with negative racial dog whistle terms: “illegitimate children”, etc. It was staggering the fact that this happened time and time again. The protestations that the process was color-blind is what really eats at me, because it clearly was not.
Linzer’s investigation cites more examples:
In multiple cases, white and black pardon applicants who committed similar offenses and had comparable post-conviction records experienced opposite outcomes.
An African American woman from Little Rock, fined $3,000 for underreporting her income in 1989, was denied a pardon; a white woman from the same city who faked multiple tax returns to collect more than $25,000 in refunds got one. A black, first-time drug offender — a Vietnam veteran who got probation in South Carolina for possessing 1.1 grams of crack – was turned down. A white, fourth-time drug offender who did prison time for selling 1,050 grams of methamphetamine was pardoned.
All of the drug offenders forgiven during the Bush administration at the pardon attorney’s recommendation – 34 of them – were white.
Oh, and it gets worse besides just the race angle: the money and corruption angle was of course front and center as supplicants came to Congress to buy indulgences from the White House.
Turning over pardons to career officials has not removed money and politics from the process, the analysis found. Justice Department documents show that nearly 200 members of Congress from both parties contacted the pardons office regarding pending cases. In multiple instances, felons and their families made campaign contributions to the lawmakers supporting their pleas. Applicants with congressional support were three times as likely to be pardoned, the statistical analysis shows.
But in the end, white privilege was the name of the game.
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. To assess the chances of black applicants, ProPublica used the sample to extrapolate the total number of black applicants and compare it with the seven blacks whom Bush pardoned. Allowing for a margin of error, this yielded a pardon rate of between 2 percent and 4 percent.
Everything the Bush administration did was political. Everything. And everything they did involving the lives of African-Americans turned to complete shit. Every. Single. Time. Just another line item on the long, long bill of goods that “compassionate conservatism” represents to the black community since the 80’s, I guess. I’m not surprised at this, just moderately depressed that the only thing this accomplished was sweeping yet another massive white privilege iceberg under the rug until somebody with enough tenacity actually asked questions. 38% of the prison population, 2-4% of the pardons. It’s enough weight on my soul to even make me miss a step trying to carry it.
At the very least I’d like to see a truly transparent pardon process come out of this disaster. That needs to happen regardless of this investigation, and the people to do it are President Obama and AG Eric Holder.
Here’s hoping we get an announcement on that new process soon, and thanks to Dafna Linzer and ProPublica for bringing this to light.