In the 18 months he has been in office, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson has acted on just one of over 3,500 clemency cases.
The Republican governor inherited a decades-old backlog of clemency requests. Some of the cases have been pending for several years, with multiple governors before Parson not taking action.
But Parson doesn’t seem to be in any rush to dive into what can be a politically risky part of the job. He declined to put one man’s execution on hold in October. Beyond that, he hasn’t denied or approved any other clemency applications.
His eight predecessors all started acting on clemencies within two years of taking office, even if it was just to deny requests, according to records provided by the Missouri Board of Pardon and Parole.
Parson, Jay Nixon and Bob Holden are the only three of the last nine governors to delay acting on clemency requests — even if it’s just to issue denials — during their first year in office, according to the records.
Parson’s office is working on a system for handling the clemency requests. The governor isn’t tackling clemency cases in part because this work hasn’t finished yet, his staff said.
“Establishing a legal review process for this large number of files takes time,” wrote Kelli Jones, spokeswoman for the governor, in an email this week.
But advocates for offenders and some legislators are running out of patience with the lack of progress.
“We want him to reduce the backlog. At the end of the day, justice delayed is justice denied, particularly for people who are incarcerated,” said Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin.
Dogan and Rep. Tracy McCreery, D-St. Louis, publicly urged Parson to start moving on clemency requests in an op-ed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch earlier this month.
McCreery said she’s considering legislation that would put an expiration date on clemency requests — requiring the governor to act on them eventually. She doesn’t blame the governor for the state’s backlog, but she also believes it’s unfair to leave families in limbo about the status of their request for years.
“I can’t imagine what it would be like to be the chief executive of the state and inherit that type of a backlog. I’m confident that he has a really good staff around him, but I don’t know why they haven’t taken any steps yet," McCreery said. "Because within that 3,500, there have to be some very obvious people that are deserving.”
In all, Missouri governors tend to deny clemency more than grant it. Since 1981, they have approved clemency in fewer than 400 cases. During the same time period, they rejected more than 5,600 requests.
Clemency is a fairly broad term. Of the thousands who have applied for it, many aren’t actually incarcerated. Some are people simply seeking to have their record wiped clean so they can apply for a certain type of job or purchase a hunting license.
But clemency tends to get attention when a governor grants it to a person convicted of a violent crime. There’s a fear that the person granted clemency could hurt someone after being released.
“You want to try to identify the people that deserve to have a chance to get out. But you sure don’t want to make a mistake,” said Holden, who granted clemency in 45 cases and denied 850 requests. “Because if you make a mistake, then that’s part of the legacy for the rest of your life.”
Nixon, a former Missouri attorney general, was stingy with clemency until the last few months of his time in office as governor. In the end, he approved 110 requests — more than any other governor of the past 30 years.
But Nixon also stuck to a narrow type of request. Few of the people were actually behind bars at the time clemency was granted. If they were, it was usually for a nonviolent offense.
Gov. Eric Greitens was more willing to grant clemency to people convicted of violent crimes. Among others, he released women who were survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault but who also landed in prison after killing their abusers.
It’s not clear what Parson’s priorities might be should he start acting on clemency cases.
The governor is a former sheriff. But his staff has been open to meeting with advocates for prison lifers who are hoping for clemency.
St. Louis University Law Professor John Ammann said the meetings are a positive sign for his clients, women who are typically serving long prison sentences for a serious crime. Ammann primarily represents victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault. He argues they are excellent candidates for clemency because their crime is often a result of trauma.
“It takes some courage," he said. "The governor has to show some courage, and say I understand all the concerns on all sides. But what’s best for the moral fiber of Missouri is to show some mercy. And it also happens to be what’s right for the taxpayers of Missouri.”
Follow Julie O'Donoghue on Twitter: @jsodonoghue
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