Gov. Brown's Frequent Use of Pardons is Retro California
|Gov. Jerry Brown|
Brown's use of pardons represents the larger shift in the criminal justice mindset he has overseen in the state -- higher rates of release for parolees and paths to freedom for juveniles serving life sentences. But while his pardon numbers easily dwarf those of his three predecessors -- Pete Wilson, Gray Davis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger -- Brown is not necessarily breaking new ground in California.
Gov. George Deukmejian, the Republican who served from 1983 to 1991, pardoned 328 criminals, an average of 41 per year. In the eight years before that, Brown (in his first stint in the state's highest seat) pardoned 403, around 50 a year. And prior to that, Gov. Ronald Reagan trumped all successors by pardoning 575 between 1967 and 1975, nearly 72 per year.
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Pardoned criminals do not get their records expunged. Rather, they get certain constitutional rights restored: They can vote, work as probation officers, be selected for jury duty, and possibly possess a gun.
Most of Brown's 79 were low-level offenders. Around three-quarters of the pardons "involved drug crimes, many of which carried no prison sentence," according to the Sacramento Bee, adding that "other pardons involved more serious crimes: one conviction for involuntary manslaughter, four for grand theft, four for robbery and three for felony driving under the influence."
California's habit of pardoning very few criminals began in the early '90s under Wilson, who proclaimed a "tough on crime" platform. Wilson signed the Three Strikes policy into law and ended the state's 25-year moratorium on executions. He pardoned 13 people.
The two governors after him were even tougher. Davis didn't pardon anyone, and Schwarzenegger pardoned seven. Similarly, while Wilson approved 73 percent of releases recommended by the parole board, Davis approved 1 percent and Schwarzenegger approved around 25 percent.
Brown has approved 70 percent of parole board release recommendations. He has helped usher in some of the state's most significant criminal justice reforms in recent memory. This year he signed a bill that gives parole opportunities to juvenile offenders sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, and another allowing inmates who committed a crime against an abusive partner to petition for release. On Election Day, California voters passed Prop. 36, which amends the state's "Three Strikes" law so that non-violent offenders won't get hit with life sentences.
Each of those policies, though, also served the dual purpose of helping ease California's overcrowded prison crisis -- by shuttling out certain inmates who are probably not a danger to society. Granting pardons offers no such collateral benefit. They simply reward "people who have demonstrated exemplary behavior following their conviction," Brown's office declared in a statement. "A pardon will not be granted unless it has been earned."