Whites are Four Times More Likely to Get Presidential Pardons

ProPublica finds an overwhelming racial disparity in who gets approved and denied for presidential pardons, despite nearly identical circumstances in many applications.

By Jorge Rivas Dec 05, 2011

A ProPublica examination of former President George W. Bush’s pardons granted between 2001 and 2008 reveals white criminals are nearly four times as likely to receive a presidential pardon than people of color. Bush, like current President Obama, decided on pardons almost entirely based on the recommendations made by career lawyers in the Office of the Pardon Attorney.

Written by ProPublica’s Dafna Linzer and Jennifer LaFleur–and co-published with the Washington Post–the investigation shows how the presidential pardon process Bush followed and Obama continues is biased and fails to abide by its own standards. And as the ProPublica story articulates, "turning over pardons to career officials has not removed money and politics from the process."

Under Bush, ProPublica found the Office of the Pardon Attorney was given "wide latitude to apply subjective standards, including judgments about the ‘attitude’ and the marital and financial stability of applicants."

"Bush decided 1,918 pardon cases sent to him by the Justice Department, most involving non-violent drug or financial crimes," write Linzer and LaFleur. "Just 189 succeeded–all but 13 of whom were white. Seven went to blacks; four to Hispanics, one to an Asian and one to a Native American…In multiple cases, white and black pardon applicants who committed similar offenses and had comparable post-conviction records experienced opposite outcomes."

ProPublica’s examination also found pardon applicants benefit from friends in high places. Letters from members of Congress triple an applicant’s chances of receiving a presidential pardon. Roger Adams, longtime pardon attorney at the Justice Department, acknowledges that lawmakers’ support adds "weight" to applicants’ prospects.

Below is an excerpt from ProPublica’s examination that explains how they reached their findings:

The department does not reveal race or any additional information that would identify an applicant, citing privacy grounds. To analyze pardons, ProPublica selected a random sample of nearly 500 cases decided by Bush and spent a year tracking down the age, gender, race, crime, sentence and marital status of applicants from public records and interviews.

In multiple cases, white and black pardon applicants who committed similar offenses and had comparable post-conviction records experienced opposite outcomes.

An African American woman from Little Rock, fined $3,000 for underreporting her income in 1989, was denied a pardon; a white woman from the same city who faked multiple tax returns to collect more than $25,000 in refunds got one. A black, first-time drug offender — a Vietnam veteran who got probation in South Carolina for possessing 1.1 grams of crack – was turned down. A white, fourth-time drug offender who did prison time for selling 1,050 grams of methamphetamine was pardoned.

All of the drug offenders forgiven during the Bush administration at the pardon attorney’s recommendation – 34 of them – were white.

Fred Fielding, who served as Bush’s White House counsel, told ProPublica the racial disparity "is very troubling to me and will be to [Bush], because we had no idea of the race of any applicant."

"The names were colorblind to us," Fielding said, "and we assumed they would be at all levels of clemency review."

Of the 22 people pardoned so far by Obama, all but two were white. Like Bush, Obama only pardons applicants recommended by the office. To date he has denied 872 pardon requests, more than Clinton denied during his two terms.

Visit ProPublica.org to read the full examination.