DOJ to Act on Racial Disparity in Pardons

Journal-isms: ProPublica's reports lead to a Justice Department probe into the issue.

U.S. to Review the Record After ProPublica Stories

The Obama administration has asked for a fresh review of an Alabama federal inmate’s commutation request and directed the Justice Department to conduct its first ever in-depth analysis of recommendations for presidential pardons, according to several officials and individuals involved,” Dafna Linzer reported Wednesday for ProPublica.

“The Office of Pardon Attorney has been at the center of growing controversy since December, when stories published by ProPublica and The Washington Post revealed a racial disparity in pardons. White applicants were four times more likely to receive presidential mercy than minorities. African Americans had the least chance of success.

“A subsequent story published in May recounted the saga of Clarence Aaron, a first-time offender sentenced in 1993 to three life terms in prison for his role in a drug conspiracy. In 2008, the pardon attorney recommended that President George W. Bush deny Aaron’s request for a commutation even though his application had the support of the prosecutor’s office that tried him and the judge who sentenced him. The pardon attorney, Ronald L. Rodgers, did not fully disclose that information to the White House.

“The handling of Aaron’s case prompted widespread criticism that the pardon office — which has rejected applications at an unprecedented pace under Rodgers — is not giving clemency requests proper consideration.”

When the original story by Linzer and Jennifer LaFleur was published in December, ProPublica editors Paul Steiger and Stephen Engelberg wrote, “Once in a great while, journalists unearth a story that shocks the conscience and demands immediate action. Today’s article on the racial disparities in the awarding of presidential pardons is one such instance.

“Published in collaboration with The Washington Post, the story discloses for the first time that whites seeking pardons are nearly four times as likely to succeed as people of color. Sophisticated statistical analysis shows that this disparity cannot be explained by such factors as age, marital status, type of crime or sentence.”

As reported a year ago, the Obama administration rejected a request for a presidential pardon for black nationalist Marcus Garvey, Jamaica’s first national hero, and also refused to issue a pardon for black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, despite a resolution passed by Congress in 2009 that had been introduced by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. In both cases, racism was said to be behind the convictions.

Adrienne LaFrance, Nieman Journalism Lab: ProPublica gets $1.9 million from Knight to expand its efforts in data journalism