Good and bad pardons
By Scott Sumner
A couple of pardons recently issued by President Trump illustrate the two extremes of this type of executive power.
A few weeks ago, Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio, former sheriff of Maricopa County (Phoenix). Arpaio combined contempt for the rule of law with punitive actions against some of the weakest members of our society. It would be difficult to find someone less deserving of a pardon, as this decision tends to give law enforcement officials a sort of carte blanche to ignore judicial rulings that restrain them from violating the rights of defendants.
More recently, Trump pardoned Alice Marie Johnson, who had spent almost 22 years in jail. In this case, it would be difficult to find someone more deserving of a pardon:
Johnson is a 63-year-old woman from Tennessee who was sentenced to life in prison for a first-time drug offense.
In 1993, she was arrested after working with a group of people who transported cocaine. The mother of four has said her involvement stemmed from hitting rock bottom in her personal life: In the early 1990s, she had gone through a divorce, a bankruptcy that led her to lose her house, and her youngest son was killed in a motorcycle accident.
Johnson alleges she never actually sold or dealt drugs, and that her role in the group was that of a “telephone mule” who passed messages along. Nevertheless, she was convicted of conspiracy to sell cocaine and money laundering, which led to a sentence of life plus 25 years in federal prison — despite it being her first offense.
That sugar coats it a bit, but keep in mind that murderers often serve shorter sentences. When I talk to people about this problem, they often shrug and say it doesn’t matter if the sentence is too long, because these are “bad people”. Better to have them put away. But of course it doesn’t end with her imprisonment, there is collateral damage:
Johnson is now 58, and her 16 years of incarceration have taken a toll on her and her family. “It feels like I am sitting on death row,” she says. “Unless things change, I will never go home alive.” Meanwhile, Johnson has been unable to care for her mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease. Her only son dropped out of school and is now in prison himself.
“There is no light at the end of the tunnel,” remarked Johnson’s eldest daughter, Tretessa. “It’s like a waking death, it’s like the person is alive but they’re not. There’s never a point of closure, ever. It’s heartbreaking for me.”[This quote is from 2013]
I also wonder whether people would be so apathetic if it were their daughter. Suppose you had a daughter in college who had a few too many drinks and got pulled over for drunk driving. Obviously that’s bad, endangering the lives of other motorists and pedestrians. But would your daughter deserve life in prison? If not, why is selling drugs worse? At least the buyers have a choice, unlike the person killed by a drunk driver.
Or is it a perception that draconian prison sentences will only snare lower class people, not affluent families? I suppose that’s generally true, but is it fair?
I find it amazing how sensitive our society is to some types of bias, but not others. Careers can be ruined by a single non-PC remark. And yet cases like Alice Marie Johnson drag on for years. Even President Obama overlooked her case:
President Barack Obama pardoned 231 individuals, many who had similar drug-related charges to those of Johnson’s, in December 2016. It’s unclear why she wasn’t in the group.
Trump’s pardon is one of the best things he has done as president. In the future, I hope he spends more time freeing those who are unjustly imprisoned, and less time freeing those who are popular with his base.
Unfortunately his choice of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General means that there will be many more Alice Marie Johnsons. Perhaps those who care about liberty should focus more on these cases, and not so much on the impact of corporate tax cuts.