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Models for Mr. Bush

Tuesday, December 28, 2004; Page A18

FOR A SELF-STYLED compassionate conservative, President Bush has been stingy with mercy. Last week, he granted four pardons, all to people sentenced to probation many years ago. The latest round of pardons brings Mr. Bush's first-term total to only 29, along with two sentence commutations. This is dramatically fewer clemency actions than any recent president has taken, barely 5 percent of those granted by President Jimmy Carter, for example. It is also dramatically less mercy than displayed by two governors of the president's party, who have reinvigorated their offices' power to give second chances: Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Maryland and Arnold Schwarzenegger of California.

Both Republican governors inherited policies from their Democratic predecessors that precluded mercy for serious offenders. Gov. Parris N. Glendening essentially refused to consider commutations; though some inmates had compelling cases, he granted only five paroles his entire tenure, all for medical reasons. In California, Gov. Gray Davis vetoed parole for all but six of the 284 convicted murderers for whom the parole board recommended release.

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In office less than two years, Mr. Ehrlich has granted 63 pardons -- more than 12 times the number Mr. Glendening granted in his first two years and nearly half the number he granted in his entire tenure. More significantly, Mr. Ehrlich commuted the sentences of six inmates facing either 25 years with no parole or life in prison; he has also granted eight holiday commutations and three medical paroles. Mr. Ehrlich has been acting more promptly on clemency petitions -- the latest round of which he granted last week -- reviewing 20 a month to keep the process moving.

In his first year in office, Mr. Schwarzenegger has not granted many pardons; he issued his first three last week. But he has restored reasonable deference to the parole board, letting stand 79 grants of parole in serious felony cases, including in 68 murder cases. While these are not technically clemency actions, they amount to much the same thing: decisions that allow reformed inmates to rejoin society at some political risk to the executive.

This is a risk Mr. Bush needs to take more often. In an era of mandatory minimum sentencing and with the federal prison population bigger than ever, the president's clemency powers could serve as a welcome palliative on a criminal justice system that knows few limits. Messrs. Ehrlich and Schwarzenegger are demonstrating that tough-on-crime Republicans can nonetheless wield this power effectively and humanely.

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