Clemency: A Prisoner’s Dream—and Disillusionment

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Alcatraz Prison. Photo by Karyn Christner via Flickr

“Hope springs eternal in the human heart,” wrote Alexander Pope in 1733. Today, his words are ritualized in a production staged quarterly in Olympia, Washington.

Countless Washington prisoners pray to one day star in the show.

It is televised on the public access channel, and produced by the Board of Pardons and Parole.

This Board recommends to the Governor whether a prisoner should receive executive clemency. However, getting the Board’s five members to make favorable recommendations is no easy feat.

The overwhelming majority of petitions for commutation are rejected out of hand—no hearing deemed necessary. For those few petitions that are heard on the merits, clemency is recommended only if the Board believes that the case is extraordinary.

“Extraordinary”—that is the threshold established by the legislature.

Therefore, were you to watch one of these hearings you would see an attorney toiling away trying to convince the Board that the case is extraordinary because, for instance, the prisoner is not as culpable as decision makers initially believed.

Or the sentence is too lengthy in light of changes in public policy.

Or the victim believes that the prisoner should indeed be released early.

Whatever the bases put forth in support for relief, family and friends of the prisoner are then trotted out to share stories of why he or she is so extraordinary and no longer poses a threat to public safety.

He has done amazing things throughout his time confined.

She is no longer the woman that she used to be.

Everything is in place to allow for a seamless transition into law-abiding society.

It is almost always in vain. Once prosecutors and victims contest the prisoner’s release the Board acts accordingly.

Petition denied.

Rarely do these hearings depart from this script. If rehabilitation is relevant to the calculus of punishment, rarely do the outcomes serve the interests of justice.

What countless hearings have demonstrated to me is this: There is nothing extraordinary about reform in the eyes of this Board.

What is deemed to be extraordinary is when a prosecutor or sentencing judge supports granting clemency. Of course, very few hearings are this out of the ordinary.

However, were clemency still necessary to set me free I probably would be amongst this rare breed.

My trial judge planted the seed when he regretfully imposed a mandatory sentence of Life Without Parole upon me. Unconvinced that the legislature intended that juvenile transfer laws (that allow those under age 18 to be tried as adults) would subject a youth to such a sentence, he urged me to do positive things and, after 20 years, to apply for clemency.

Had I followed his recommendation and sought commutation the Board undoubtedly would have perceived his support to be extraordinary. Never mind that I was confined for crimes committed at age 14.

Yet such situations are exceedingly rare in the criminal justice system. They are the outliers. If anything, they highlight the improbability that the average prisoner will ever receive clemency.

Given these dismal prospects, it is astonishing that large numbers of my fellow prisoners still believe they may one day receive clemency. They are deluded, quite frankly.  Clemency is not meant to serve their interests.   It serves the interests of others who are far more important.

When a judge’s hands are tied by mandatory sentencing guidelines and he must impose a sentence with regret or changes in public perceptions makes a prosecutor want to undue the actions of a predecessor, both need a mechanism to set things right. The clemency process provides the means to achieve this objective, and thereby helps to maintain the fiction that our criminal justice system is just.

Fortunately, not all is lost for prisoners.

Jeremiah Bourgeois

Faith in clemency keeps hope alive when the situation is hopeless. Ultimately, it is an opiate for the mass incarcerated.

Jeremiah Bourgeois is a regular contributor to TCR, and an inmate at Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, WA, where he is currently serving 25 years to life for a crime committed when he was 14. He will be eligible to go before the parole board in 2017. He welcomes comments from readers.

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