On Wednesday night, Tishman Auditorium played host to a discussion entitled “Pardons: The Power Nobody Wants.” A panel of speakers, moderated by President Emeritus Bob Kerrey, gave their opinions about the power of the president of the United States and state governors to commute prison sentences and clean the records of individuals who have already served their sentences.
The panel members were Robert L. Ehrlich, former Governor of Maryland; Dennis Jacobs, Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit; Margaret Colgate Love, a former U.S. Department of Justice pardon attorney; Anthony Papa, who received clemency following imprisonment for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense under New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws; Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums; and David Van Zandt, president of The New School.
The discussion, attended by roughly 100 people, opened with remarks by Van Zandt in which he evoked the recent execution of Troy Davis. Davis was executed on September 21 by the state of Georgia, despite national outcry against the execution due to recanted witness testimony. Van Zandt then introduced Jacobs, who spoke in defense of the pardon and clemency process.
“The power of pardon is a wonderful, integral, nifty device for the sound administration of law,” Jacobs said in his keynote address. Jacobs also lamented the decline of the use of pardons by both governors and presidents. “The single most important things about the pardon today is it’s decline in use,” he said. He concluded his address by calling pardons “the easiest way to improve law and justice in one stroke.”
As both Kerrey and Ehrlich are former governors, the attendees had a unique opportunity to learn about pardons and clemency from people who had the power to grant them. Kerrey said pardons “always provoke a strong [political] response,” adding that “pardons have no political upside.”
Ehrlich, who drew laughs from the audience when he identified himself as a Republican, said on three occasions that he “view[ed] the power as a way to do justice” in three different instances. “First, to correct sentence injustices, in the case of three time losers and mandatory minimums. Second, to correct acts of pure injustice. And third as a pragmatic matter of full employment.”
Love, who left the Department of Justice in 1997 to open her own firm dedicated to pardon and clemency law, said that, at the federal level, “the system went wrong… the justice department sort of stopped doing its job. The Attorney General himself stopped being the source of recommendations to the president.” She also said that “there certainly is a great need [for pardons]. The crack cases are case in point.” Love was referring to the disparity in mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine offenders when compared to sentences for powder cocaine offenders.
Panel member Anthony Papa personalized the discussion. Papa was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison in 1985 for crack cocaine possession, under what he termed the “draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws.” In 1996, then-governor George Pataki pardoned Papa, and he was released from prison. Papa said his crime was “the stupidest thing [he’s] ever done,” and that it was motivated by poverty. He was offered $500 to take an envelope from the Bronx to upstate New York, walking into a police sting.