This year, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo granted four clemencies. “Today we are taking a critical step toward a more just, more fair, and more compassionate New York,” Cuomo said in a statement on the day he announced the clemencies last month.
Four clemencies—two sentence commutations, and two pardons—is an impressive number only when looking at Cuomo’s previous track record. During his first two years in office he granted zero, and since he was elected in 2011 has granted only nine.
“I think governor is afraid to do clemencies because he’s afraid of seeming soft on crime,” said Allen Roskoff, a longtime activist and president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club.
The tides may be shifting in New York, though. When Cuomo announced his recent grantees, he also announced a partnership with several legal organizations who will help review applications and provide pro bono legal assistance—but whether he will act upon these promises has yet to be seen.
There is no state where the governor is known for “handing clemencies out like candy,” said PS Ruckman, Jr., Professor of Political Science at Northern Illinois University and author of the Pardon Power blog. Rather, there is a spectrum that goes from, “no pardoning and normal pardon,” Ruckman said.
The extreme ‘no pardoning’ is most dramatically seen in Wisconsin where Governor Scott Walker’s policy is that so long as he is in office, there will be no clemencies in his state.
Arkansas, Ruckman says, is a good example of a state where pardons are given at a healthy rate. “In Arkansas, the governors regularly pardon—not hundreds of thousands, but two here five here, ten there, that type of thing,” he said.
Cuomo’s recent actions are reflective of a changing of attitude across the country. President Obama received much media attention for granting the release of 6,000 federal prisoners, but that was the function or retroactively implementing reformed laws, not traditional commutations.
Ruckman’s home state, Illinois, has seen a bit of change in pardoning culture over the past few gubernatorial terms. Following the now-incarcerated former Governor, Rod Blagojevich who granted zero clemencies during his term, Pat Quinn (D) granted 1,752 requests, and denied 3,014 — a rate reported to be among the highest for any governor at that time.
The current governor, Bruce Rauner, a Republican, has taken steps to maintain a healthy clemency system. Rauner reviews applications on a regular cycle. Since taking office last January, he has granted 21 clemencies, in four batches.
“I have a sense that governors are pardoning more,” Ruckman said, “There is a trend in the culture.”