Friday, March 12, 2010

If I Were President - The Great Pardoning

Disclaimer: I know I'm never going to be President of the United States, nor would I truly want to be. I also know much of what I'm going to say in this hypothetical musing is impractical and improbable to say the least. Get over it.

The POTUS has a lot of power in our system - much more than in most democracies or constitutional republics. Many of the President's powers require congressional rubber stamping, but plenty of them don't. One heavily under-utilized example is the presidential pardon. The President may without rhyme or reason pardon or commute the sentence of anyone convicted of any crime anywhere in the country. Heck, they don't have to be convicted even. You can pre-emptively pardon.

Here is what I would do. Starting on day one of my presidency I would have lists drawn up of every convicted criminal in the country. I would have them categorized into types of offenses and their severity. I would then begin mass pardoning from the least dangerous on upward, with the ultimate goal being emptying our prisons of all but the most dangerous and violent types of criminals.

This would commence in waves for several reasons.

Practically speaking it would be too much work to accomplish in one big push.

A whole bunch of ramifications would result from the sudden influx of unemployed, homeless, former convicts. I would want to give communities time to adapt. Alongside the pardons I would call on aid organizations, churches, and others to get together and strategize how to integrate these people back into society.

I would use the waves as pressure on Congress to demand several things. I would demand legislation aimed at creating jobs and assisting freed prisoners in establishing new lives. I would ask to reorient law enforcement offices around the country in the direction of rehabilitation & prevention rather than punishment. I would demand an end to the war on drugs and changes to federal and state standards for imprisonment - promising to continue pardoning until satisfactory changes were implemented. Each delay would see a new wave of pardons.

I would assemble teams to analyze batches of cases where it would be appropriate to commute sentences rather than pardon if a better result could be achieved. Can murderers and sex offenders be treated psychologically (even permanently in a mental health facility if necessary) rather than imprisoned? Would some benefit from community service? I would commute every single death sentence to a lesser penalty immediately.

Against the threat of impeachment (since this would outrage many people) I would reserve the "nuclear pardon" option to pardon every single prisoner at once on my last day in office if impeached. So long as it remained possible I would continue the slower, more judicious method of pardoning in waves.

By the end of my term I would hope to have very nearly emptied our prisons entirely. Only a small fraction of those currently imprisoned would remain because a better solution could not be found. As such I would hope to crush the prison economy irrevocably. I would relentlessly pressure states and congress to change their laws to utilize alternate forms of punishment beside imprisonment and to create new jobs in social services aimed at overseeing the new procedures of crime and rehabilitation. A few federal prisons would remain as relics for desperate cases where society utterly failed to come up with a better solution.


Dale said...

Non-violent and not-dangerous out first? I guess that Bernie Ebbers, Dennis Kozlowski, Bernie Madoff and Allen Stanford are the first to get out. Release these poor, misunderstood souls! Rehabilitation or prevention wouldn't be required, nobody would be willing to give them money anyway.

Aric Clark said...

Fair point, Dale. Violence wouldn't be the only criteria about priority for pardon. But since I'm talking about pardoning virtually every convict, yes, these men would also be released if I had the authority to do so. Have no fear, that will never happen.

One thing to consider, perhaps, is that this has nothing to do with forgiveness. This is about upending a broken system that doesn't accomplish anything it intends to: protect society, deter crime, effective punishment... well maybe it is effective punishment in some cases. Meanwhile the system accomplishes much that is detrimental to society - fostering criminality, inhibiting meaningful reconciliation or rehabilitation, perpetuating racism, classism etc.. etc.. etc..

Dale said...

Speaking of racism, why are you posting an image of the President of the United States as an Oreo cookie? I think that's the most offensive thing I've seen in a while.

Aric Clark said...

Really? The cookie offends you? Maybe I'm showing my ignorance, but what does it have to do with racism? It's actually a pewter artwork by an artist whose name is Herbert Hoover so he thinks its funny (since his name is the same as one of our former presidents) to put POTUS on his works.

Doug Hagler said...

"Oreo" is a derogatory term for a person who is 'black on the outside and white on the inside'.

Aric Clark said...

Picture removed. My apologies for my ignorance.

Dale said...

No problem. Racism is a matter of perception and can easily be indelibly branded on anybody or anything that somebody wishes to discredit. Maybe we can avoid using it in our rants.

Our legal system is far from perfect, but your solution is IMO beyond Pollyannish. Crime and Recidivism are social problems indeed, but you have left out one of the primary causal factors of crime - broken homes and young boys with no male role models. That has nothing to do with race, but does have a lot to to with our collective social ills.

The good news is that it is a problem that both you and I can work towards addressing. It has nothing to do with the government, and everything to do with our church. Why not encourage your flock to get involved in Big Brothers, the Boy Scouts and local schools rather than wring your hands in your academic role as pretend president?

I look forward to engaging in conversation on this blog. I am encouraged by your willingness to listen.

Aric Clark said...


Thanks for commenting. Hopefully you'll find us foolish sorts to be good conversation partners.

I didn't accuse anyone of racism, though you accused me. I said that our system perpetuates racism which is something that is backed up by the facts - young black males being more likely to end up in prison than in college, for example. I'm not going to quit talking about racism, though I agree with you it isn't particularly productive to go about calling each other names.

No doubt most people would agree with you that my proposal here is pollyannish. But I never said it was THE solution. I am engaging in an admittedly unrealistic hypothetical musing. There are obvious limits to what I'm saying here. You dismiss this as a waste of time. Maybe. I'm allowed to waste my time. There are worse ways of wasting time.

I think you miss the target in suggesting that this is somehow counterproductive though. As if posting on a blog prevented me from doing far more important things all the time in my daily life. You don't know what I do or don't do with my time, so why get so aggressive about a blog post?

To respond a bit more substantively in relation to the actual subject at hand - We imprison more of our populace than any other nation. It is ineffective as a deterrent (our crime rates are much higher than many other places who use their prisons less). On the contrary going to prison increases the likelihood of you committing a crime in the future. Our prison system is overcrowded and failing, while having no incentives to change because it is profitable for those who operate prisons, while costing taxpayers billions. Our use of imprisonment as a punishment is arbitrary and injust. You are 10x as likely to go to jail for possession of crack, than for cocaine even though crack is only 10% Cocaine and 90% baking soda. The reason? Poorer people use crack and are easier to catch and convict.

I could go on for a long time like this.

Furthermore, I am a minister. I believe Jesus Christ made it his mission and the mission of his disciples, in part, to set the captives free. The societal evils of imprisonment often outweigh the evils of a particular crime. Retributive justice consistently fails. We need to find a better way.

Do these better ways include many many things like you suggest - better role models, reconciliation in broken homes etc... of course!! absolutely! Even principally. I wasn't saying that emptying our prisons would end crime, or that it would solve the roots of the problem.

What I AM saying, is that if I were president I would pardon most criminals as ONE of my actions as president because I believe it what is necessary to begin restructuring our broken system. It would create the incentive necessary to begin meaningful reform precisely because it would shock so many people, and it is something a president can do without congressional approval or Supreme Court oversight.

Dale said...

Aric - I think that perhaps my aggressive response was due to the the nature of my feelings toward the clergy and organized religion when they begin mixing with politics. I am equally nauseated by the distortions of Pat Robertson and Bob Edgar, but I will try to not view this blog through that prism.

We no doubt have very different opinions and life experiences, and I am looking forward to the conversation here in fooldom. By the way, which one of you is the fool (or is that by design - me?)

Doug Hagler said...

Dale, I'm actually bothered by liberal and progressive Christians who remain uninvolved in politics, as if our faith only had to do with imagination and Sunday morning and not the rest of the week or the lives of the people around us. I think anyone can look around at conservative theocracies and see how well those turn out for everyone involved. The other option is not disengagement or ostrich-ism, though.

Nick.Larson said...

Thanks for the comments Dale. I agree with you that often Aric get's to thinking in too board strokes to "fix" things with bold and always inciting ideas. But that's also the fun of it.

I agree with my two colleagues here that I think faith and politics are too closely related to try to say they shouldn't mix. But I do agree with you that I believe firmly in the seperation of church and state. I also tend towards the more practical solutions like big brother/big sister programs and the like. I totally agree about the mentoring thing. What would happen if instead of being sentenced to prison a convict would be sentenced to a mentor? We could find a way to link our elderly or experienced members of society with those who have gotten lost.

Just my thoughts.

Dale said...

Doug, perhaps a clarification of my thoughts is in order since I have veered off topic. I have no problem with you our Aric or anyone stating their political thoughts whether they are clergy or not. I would possibly be angry listening to your political thoughts if I were sitting in a pew and unable to respond. I appreciate dialogue with principled people of all types.

My anger is at religious institutions that are more concerned with political parties than theology itself. I am not aware of any theocracy that turned out well, nor am I aware of any religious institution that has consistently shown political or practical wisdom. When an institution practices politics, it becomes an institution of man that is subject to the frailties of man.

People claiming that God sees something their way are very often proven to be wrong and even dangerous.

Dale said...

Can I do a guest blog topic?

Pam said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Doug Hagler said...

As far as I'm concerned - perhaps. Depends on the topic and what my colleagues think.

As for a religious institution that has consistently shown political wisdom - I put forward the Quakers. As far as I know, they have been on the right side of every political issue since slavery, helped create conscientious objection in the US, etc. They even have hundreds of years of successful consensus-based leadership and decision-making. For a tiny group, they spend a lot of time at the front of the line when it comes to social change for the betterment of the poor and the powerless.

Go Quakers!

Dale said...

The front line of social change is certainly not our government, it is with the poor.

It's hard to say what the Quaker position is on any given issue. Roughly half of eligible Quakers voluntarily served in World War II. (I suppose that means that either way they were on the right side of a political issue?)

I don't know how you could call anybody in such a loosely associated group an's more of a movement of like minded individuals on specific issues. Political activism of individuals is not a problem, but the political enterprises of a religious institution are.

Dale said...

And one more thing - don't you think that it's a little odd that you have cited an organization with no clergy?

Aric Clark said...


As far as you doing a guest blog topic - I think we'd be game. Why don't you run some specifics by us. If you don't want to do it in a comment, you can email me at:

sabedoriaclark at yahoo dot com

I will share it with my two friarly friends and we'll get back to you.

On the Quakers - they are very loosely organized and thus a queer sort of institution, but Doug is right, their "official" stance has been most usually dead on. And yeah, here we 3 are all clergy and we admire an organization with no clergy. What hypocrites we are! :P