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Pardons play key role in granting justice

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez revived a debate as old as Plato this week when she objected to pardons and commutations that former Gov. Pat Quinn issued on his last day in office.


An Alvarez spokesman said Quinn’s actions “deeply disappointed” the state’s attorney. She called the process a “secretive maneuver that puts the rights of victims of crime and their families at the bottom of the list of priorities.”

A pardon can seem like an end run around the legal process. But the history of pardons and commutations shows that they are, in fact, a safeguard when the criminal justice system gets it wrong.

Our one complaint is that governors should not be allowed to grant pardons without explaining their thinking, in writing. If a governor is going to exercise the power of a king — and pardons are rooted in the days of monarchy — tell us why. Let there be no mysteries.

That said, consider the good sense Quinn showed Monday.

A group of former prominent judges, prosecutors and others thought Willie Johnson’s 2½-year perjury sentence for saying he lied about a 1992 double murder would discourage others from recanting false testimony. By the time the courts got around to rectifying this, Johnson probably already would have served his sentence. The case against Tyrone Hood also was extremely dubious, but Alvarez’s own re-investigation was dragging on.

Quinn resolved both matters rightly with the stroke of a pen.

Pardons and commutations can be misused. People cried foul when former President George H.W. Bush pardoned former U.S. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, when former President Bill Clinton pardoned tax fugitive Mark Rich and when former President George W. Bush commuted the sentence of Scooter Libby, an aide to former Vice President Dick Cheney.

But even allowing for political abuses, pardons are a safety valve for the imperfections of due process. Justice comes too late or not at all for many people. It’s unfortunate, as Governing Magazine reports, that a growing number of governors, particularly those with national ambitions, are leery of granting pardons because they fear political fallout.

Every pardon or commutation should be accompanied by a detailed written rationale. But let’s not return to the days of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who let petitions for pardons and clemency pile up without action.

When justice demands it, a governor should act.