Current and former officials at the White House and Justice Department said they were surprised and dismayed by the racial disparities, which persist even when factors such as the type of crime and sentence are considered.
“I’m just astounded by those numbers,” said Roger Adams, who served as head of the Justice Department’s pardons office from 1998 to 2008. He said he could think of nothing in the office’s practices that would have skewed the recommendations. “I can recall several African Americans getting pardons.’’
The review of applications for pardons is conducted almost entirely in secret, with the government releasing scant information about those it rejects.
ProPublica’s review examined what happened after President George W. Bush decided at the beginning of his first term to rely almost entirely on the recommendations made by career lawyers in the Office of the Pardon Attorney.
The office was given wide latitude to apply subjective standards, including judgments about the “attitude” and the marital and financial stability of applicants. No two pardon cases match up perfectly, but records reveal repeated instances in which white applicants won pardons with transgressions on their records similar to those of blacks and other minorities who were denied.
Senior aides in the Bush White House say the president had hoped to take politics out of the process and avoid a repetition of the Marc Rich scandal, in which the fugitive financier won an eleventh-hour pardon tainted by his ex-wife’s donations to Democratic causes and the Clinton Presidential Library.
Justice Department officials said in a statement Friday that the pardon process takes into account many factors that cannot be statistically measured, such as an applicant’s candor and level of remorse.
“Nonetheless, we take the concerns seriously,” the statement said. “We will continue to evaluate the statistical analysis and, of course, are always working to improve the clemency process and ensure that every applicant gets a fair, merit-based evaluation.”
Bush followed the recommendations of the pardons office in nearly every case, the aides said. The results, spread among hundreds of cases over eight years, heavily favored whites. President Obama — who has pardoned 22 people, two of them minorities — has continued the practice of relying on the pardons office.
“President Obama takes his constitutional power to grant clemency very seriously,” said Matt Lehrich, a White House spokesman. “Race has no place in the evaluation of clemency evaluations, and the White House does not consider or even receive information on the race of applicants.”
The president’s power to pardon is enshrined in the Constitution. It is an act of forgiveness for a federal crime. It does not wipe away the conviction, but it does restore a person’s full rights to vote, possess firearms and serve on federal juries. It allows individuals to obtain licensing and business permits and removes barriers to certain career opportunities and adoptions.