The power of an executive to pardon individuals and to commute their criminal sentences is supposed to be rooted in justice.
It’s supposed to follow strict protocols as laid out in the law. It’s supposed to recognize the nature and circumstances of the individual’s crime, the extent to which the individual has paid their debt to society, and the extent to which the individual has bettered themselves under challenging circumstances.
It’s a tremendous power held by a limited number of government officials that should not be exercised lightly, frivolously or inappropriately. It’s a power that should not be used to return political favors, to help someone just because of who they know, to pay back financial benefactors, or to protect oneself, one’s family members or one’s associates from prosecution for their own crimes.
Society, in turn, has a right to expect contrition from the receiver of this clemency and some demonstration of atonement.
If you want to see a stark difference in how the power is used appropriately and how it is abused, look no further than how it was exercised recently by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and President Trump.
President Trump in the past two weeks has issued more than two dozen pardons as he prepares to leave the White House, including pardons to former political associates convicted in connection with the Mueller investigation; individuals convicted of defrauding the federal government, tampering with witnesses and otherwise abusing the system of justice; and individuals charged with heinous crimes, unrepentant murderers with connections to his administration.
There’s even some talk about Trump issuing preemptive pardons for his children, other family members, political cronies like Rudy Giuliani and even himself.
Now look at the 21 acts of clemency granted by Gov. Cuomo last week just before Christmas.
They included two women with a history of being abused who had already spent significant time in prison for killing their abusive partners; one Vietnam veteran who suffered from PTSD; 14 individuals charged with non-violent offenses and drug possession (including several who faced the possibility of deportation); and a man who has served 25 years of a 25-to-life sentence for a murder committed when he was 18 and in which he wasn’t even the actual shooter.
In these cases, society exacted justice, and the state respected the judicial process while demonstrating constraint and showing compassion.
There’s a right way and a wrong way to exercise this power.
The difference in how these two leaders approached this sacred duty couldn’t be more clear.