Information has been leaked to the press that either today or tomorrow morning, President Trump will grant pardons to some 80 – 100 people for their crimes. In order to evaluate this action, it is important to have some background and context regarding presidential pardons.
In many democracies around the world, the president has the authority to grant a pardon to convicted criminals. In the United States, many presidents (both Democrat and Republican) have spent their last days in office granting these pardons. In the U.S. legal system, presidential pardons can only be applied to federal crimes, not state convictions. The first clause of Article II Section 2 of the Constitution states: “The President …shall have Power to grand Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” This usually takes the form of a pardon which is forgiveness of a person’s conviction or a commutation in which the sentences are abbreviated or vacated.
Throughout U.S. history, there have been three main reasons why presidents have granted pardons.
- After a court case has been decided, and the person has been convicted of a crime, new evidence appears which, if it had been presented during the trial, would probably have produced a not guilty decision This new evidence can include DNA records, a confession by the true guilty party, photographs, tape recordings, etc. If done carefully and cautiously, this seems to me like a legitimate use of the presidential pardon.
- Penalties for crimes vary in their severity over time. For example, decades ago, minor nonviolent drug offenses were punished quite harshly. Almost two thousand people are serving life sentences in federal prisons for nonviolent crimes. Most citizens believe that these severe punishments have needlessly destroyed people’s lives and their families. Here, a presidential commutation seems appropriate, because people should not spend the rest of their lives in prison for one mistake.
- Some convicted people have become contrite and repentant in prison. They have turned their lives around and have become examples of good conduct. At times, presidents have rewarded this change of heart and action with a pardon. This is more ambiguous than the first two situations where true guilt is punished. Although I definitely believe that God can forgive us our sins, there are social consequences for our crimes. A presidential pardon for these repentant people could be appropriate if we could determine some criteria for measuring the validity of their actions.
To protect the integrity of the presidential pardon, there are safeguards. All applications for pardons must be prepared and submitted to the president by the U.S. Pardon Attorney of the Department of Justice, although the president is not required to follow the recommendations.
These guidelines have not always been followed. Some pardons/commutations are obviously immoral such as presidents who have granted pardons to their family members or friends. To give a pardon in exchange for money (given directly or via a large donation to a particular political campaign) is illegal. (President Clinton made many questionable pardons of wealthy donors and friends, including the most controversial one granted to financier Marc Rich). A presidential pardon of oneself has never been tested in the courts but seems ridiculously immoral from my point of view. In the latest NBC poll, 64% of U.S. citizens are against the idea of President Trump pardoning himself. (A reputable news reporter just announced that a president can have a legal “secret” list of people who are pardoned which will only be made public if and when the person is convicted. If this is true, then it is likely that the “official list of Trump’s pardonees” might not be complete, with some of his family or friends on the secret list.)
My dear readers, whether you are a supporter of Trump or one of his critics, strive to apply the criteria described above to his imminent pardons… and remember, “No one is above the law”. For the good of society, we should all be accountable for our actions.