Gov. Jerry Brown has given more than 850 pardons since 2011. This trend contrasts with the three prior governors, who granted a total of 28 pardons, reported Laurel Rosenhall of CAL Matters.
Clemency applications sent to the governor describe youth indiscretions, lives of poverty, drug addiction, drug deals, accidental shootings and drunken driving. Applications also describe transformations showing devotion to living clean, steady jobs, responsible parenting and sobriety.
Governor Brown’s actions reflect a swing back in favor of mercy as in Illinois, Michigan and at the federal level. President Obama commuted more sentences for people convicted of federal crimes than any president since Woodrow Wilson.
“The social landscape is definitely changing,” P.S. Ruckman Jr., political scientist and editor of Pardon Power blog said. “There is kind of a sea change going on, with respect to the attitudes about clemency and pardon power.”
Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez (R-Riverside), who has been critical of Brown’s progressive approach to criminal justice, is not complaining. She said, “I’ve looked at who he is pardoning, and I can’t find one particular case that jars my anger. They’ve already done their time. It’s not lessening their punishment, and they had to prove to the court that they are upstanding citizens and have stayed out of trouble. So I don’t view that aspect of his role as governor as being soft on crime.”
A pardon does not erase a criminal record but restores rights to people convicted of felonies to get certain professional licenses and serve on a jury. A pardon is not a commutation, which reduces a prison sentence.
After the Civil War in 1868, President Andrew Johnson granted a Christmas Day Pardon to everyone who could have committed treason by rebelling. Christmas time amnesty was common in the late 1800s, when prison wardens would make lists of inmates who should be freed on the holiday.
Governor Brown was criticized when he pardoned celebrity Robert Downey Jr. on Christmas Eve 2015 for narcotics crimes after Downey donated money to Brown’s re-election campaign. Most pardon recipients are regular people who say in their applications that a pardon will allow them to get a better job, go hunting or volunteer in a school.
Gabriel Chin, a law professor at University of California at Davis, pointed out that America is the land of second chances. “If somebody does something when they are … 19 or 20, are they still going to be under this shadow when they’re 80?”