Pardon me: Justice, mercy, and the presidential pardonNovember 2, 2016
Presidential pardons and commutations make me think about two things: justice and mercy.
President Obama commuted the sentences of 98 people last week. That brings the total number of Obama’s Presidential commutations to 872— 688 of those commutations have been granted in this calendar year. The sheer number of commutations are an intentional commentary on our criminal justice system, and whether it is functioning as a just system for all people regardless of race or economic status.
The overwhelming majority of these inmates were serving mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses, and many of them committed the crimes at a young age. A commutation doesn’t mean the drugs are now legal nor what these people did was legal then nor now. But the commutations raise the question: does the punishment fit the crime? What is a just response to crime?
Conversations about criminal justice reform are ongoing, but as of yet, unsuccessful in achieving change. As a Christian, we want our hearts to reflect God’s heart. What He cares about, we care about. And God is clear He cares about justice. So we care that the systems emerging from our democratic process are fair and just. The conversation about minor drug offenses and mandatory minimum sentences start there.
There is also mercy. The President has constitutionally-conferred power to pardon or commute a sentence. Michael Waldman, executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law: A “pardon wipes out the conviction while a commutation leaves the conviction intact but wipes out the punishment.”
Meaning, for these 98 people, the President has extended mercy in lessening their punishment, but the record of the crime remains. They still enter a post-prison world as an ex-con, which means they can’t vote, may have a hard time getting employment, access to public services or housing.
A pardon is something different than a commutation. It provides complete relief. According to the Justice Department:
A pardon is an expression of the President’s forgiveness and ordinarily is granted in recognition of the applicant’s acceptance of responsibility for the crime and established good conduct for a significant period of time after conviction or completion of sentence. It does not signify innocence. It does, however, remove civil disabilities – e.g., restrictions on the right to vote, hold state or local office, or sit on a jury – imposed because of the conviction for which pardon is sought, and should lessen the stigma arising from the conviction. It may also be helpful in obtaining licenses, bonding, or employment.
The most well-known example of a Presidential pardon in our age is that of Richard Nixon. President Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon after he resigned the presidency in disgrace. More recently, “Pardon me,” was one of the more elegant and genuinely funny jokes offered by Donald Trump about Hillary Clinton at the Al Smith dinner.
But even a pardon does not completely remove the stain of guilt. It does not declare innocence for a wrong, but declares forgiveness and removes all legal consequences of the crime.
What God offers us is so different— forgiveness that is complete absolution because He has paid our debt for us:
Colossians 2:13-14- And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.
And this freedom is available to anyone. Not just low level offenders. Not just people who have shown good behavior. Not just those who can get their case before the President.
We have received the ultimate extension of mercy. That our God would take our place and pay our debt for us. Then, on top of it, we have been given unmerited favor— His grace. Not only is our debt canceled, but He has credited to us the righteousness of His Son Jesus Christ. It is as if the President decided not only to cancel— or pay himself— the punishment of a criminal, but also to bestow on the individual his own name, reputation, position and wealth.
This exchange does not even come close to comparing to what we have been given.
This mercy we have received must influence how we look at our criminal justice system and how we treat people who have come out of the system in need of a second chance and a new community. We all need second chances.
The presidential commutations have changed the lives of 98 sets of families, friends and communities. But will we allow it to prick our collective conscience and ask can we be a community that seeks justice and extends mercy?