Politics

End-of-term pardons are a rare tradition in most states. But not Kentucky.

Critics say the practice should end. They argue Kentucky’s chief executives should use the pardon powers more regularly, instead of waiting until they’re packing up their offices.

Last week, Gov. Steve Beshear granted 201 pardons and six commutations in the final hours of his term. A few weeks before that, he restored voting rights to about 180,000 Kentuckians who had committed non-violent felonies and completed their sentences.

Kentucky is the only state where a governor routinely waits until the last day in office to issue pardons, said Margaret Love, an attorney based in Washington, D.C., who has researched pardon practices nationwide.

But the practice isn’t unheard of in other states. At the end of his term, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour issued pardons to nearly 200 people, including five convicted murderers, setting off a national uproar. But Barbour issued pardons earlier in his term as well.

Beshear’s office said it received more than 3,400 pardon applications over his eight years in office. He granted no full pardons until last week. Among the requests he granted were pardons or commutations to 10 women convicted of violent crimes against abusive partners. He also granted pardons to many previous drug offenders.

In a news release announcing the pardons, Beshear said he had spent “many long days weighing the merits and circumstances of individual cases” before making his final pardon selections.

P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political science instructor at Rock Valley College in Illinois, said the practice of issuing end-of-term pardons is “despicable.”

“I just wonder when in time did he decide they deserve clemency? If it was six months ago? Why didn’t he commute their sentences six months ago?” Ruckman said.

During his last week in office in 2007, Gov. Ernie Fletcher granted dozens of pardons to those convicted of a variety of offenses, including murder, drug charges and burglary.

On his last day in office in 2003, Democratic Gov. Paul Patton commuted the sentence of a man on death row, changing it to life without parole. At the time, Patton said he had determined about 200 pardon applications were justified but decided against granting them. Patton said then that issuing so many pardons “would have been unacceptable.”

“If I had made 200 pardons, that would be criticized,” Patton told The Courier-Journal. “And then, if three of them happen to have made a contribution to our campaign — or somebody related to them made a contribution to our campaign — then those would have been viewed as political paybacks.”

Ruckman said that a delay in issuing pardons sends a powerful message.

“When you pardon at the last minute like that, it opens yourself to the criticism that you’re trying to get away with something, and you’re escaping political responsibility, of course, because you’re leaving office,” Ruckman said. “You’re walking out as opposed to being there so people can question you and ask you to justify what you’re doing.”

Beshear’s pardon of Cheryl McCafferty drew some backlash. McCafferty had been incarcerated for killing her husband, Bob McCafferty, after he abused her.

The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that Bob McCafferty’s family was “disappointed and frustrated” by Beshear’s pardon, and the prosecutor in the case maintained that there was “no real evidence” that Cheryl McCafferty was the victim of domestic violence.

Beshear’s pardon of Michael Bishop sparked criticism from victims’ advocates. Bishop was convicted of shooting a 12-year-old in the back after the boy rang Bishop’s doorbell. WDRB reported that the victim’s family called Beshear’s pardon “reckless” and said Bishop hadn’t redeemed himself.

Fletcher was similarly criticized for not contacting prosecutors before he issued pardons — 84 out of 105 were given on his last day in office.

Amber Widgery, a policy associate at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said across the U.S., governors decide how frequently they want to issue pardons.

“The bulk of states don’t have a lot of specific guidelines for governors,” Widgery said, “Oftentimes it’s open-ended, completely dependent on that individual and their style when running the office.”

Pardon policies vary throughout the states. Some have independent boards set up to review pardon applications, some grant pardons infrequently, and others have governors issue several pardons periodically throughout their terms.

“This is a regular, normal part of business in those states,” said Love, the D.C. pardons attorney. “The way the process works in Kentucky makes it look like the governor is trying to run away with something. It’s like sort of stealing the china.”

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives.