On Tuesday, October 31, Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey issued new guidelines that promise to revolutionize the clemency process in her state. Those guidelines offer a model that may transform the understanding of executive clemency across the country and, at the same time, return it to what it once was in the United States.
At a time of rising fear of crime in Massachusetts and elsewhere across the nation, Governor Healey promises to make a place for mercy and compassion in dealing with people convicted of even the most serious criminal offenses. She also said that she will use her clemency power to redress structural inequities and systemic discrimination in the criminal justice system.
In Massachusetts, the clemency process is quite complex. People seeking a commutation or a pardon first must petition the Parole Board, which, in this capacity, sits as the Advisory Board of Pardons.
The Board reviews those petitions and determines whether a petition warrants a hearing. It then makes a recommendation to the Governor. In making these determinations, the Board is supposed to follow the guidelines issued by the Governor.
Finally, in Massachusetts, a grant of clemency requires the advice and consent of what is called the Governor’s Council, a group of eight people elected from districts across the state plus the Lieutenant Governor who serves ex officio.
In formulating her new clemency guidelines, Governor Healey followed the recommendation of the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Clemency Task Force. As that group noted, “Historically, clemency was available with regularity in Massachusetts. However, the process became very political several decades ago and grants of clemency became a rarity, often granted only toward the end of a governor’s last term in office.”
A Boston Globe report notes that “in the past 25 years, risk-averse Massachusetts governors have only granted four commutation petitions, the most recent three near the end of Governor Charlie Baker’s term [Healey’s predecessor].”
They occurred in December 2022, when Baker pardoned John Austin, who had been convicted of operating a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol; Phillip Hagar Jr., who was serving time for a firearms offense; and Edmund Mulvehill, who had committed an armed robbery.
The Massachusetts Clemency Task Force called clemency “an act of mercy and a constitutionally based fail-safe designed to ensure justice is served in criminal cases when no other legal remedy is available.” It concluded that reviving clemency and using it more frequently “would be consistent with recent polling showing voters approve of the use of clemency by state governors and the president to reverse decades of over-incarceration and racial disparities, and to grant commutations to people who do not pose a threat in their communities.”
Even with such poll results, Healey’s open embrace of mercy and her consideration of structural inequities as a ground for granting clemency is a bold and remarkable gesture at a time when governors in many places are reluctant to grant clemency for fear of being branded soft on crime. And when governors have granted clemency, they have tended to do so only in cases where there is overwhelming evidence of a grave miscarriage of justice.
Thirteen other states and the District of Columbia follow the Massachusetts pattern in which chief executives rarely use their clemency power. That group includes a surprising mix of red and blue states: Alaska, Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, and West Virginia.
We see a similarly unusual pattern if we look at the states in which the clemency power is used more regularly. They include Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Utah.
But nowhere in recent years has a governor gone as far as Governor Healey has in highlighting her determination to put mercy and compassion at the center of the clemency process. At the same time, Healey’s new guidelines fit well with the understanding of clemency that prevailed in the early years of the American Republic and throughout most of American history.
In 1833, in the first clemency case to reach the United States Supreme Court, Chief Justice John Marshall articulated that understanding of the clemency power. Marshall saw it as a broad and sweeping power granted to chief executives so they could act mercifully.
That case, United States v. Wilson, brought to the Court President Andrew Jackson’s pardon of a robber for a crime for which he has been sentenced to death, and the question of what happened when Wilson, for breathtakingly inexplicable reasons, did not wish in any manner to avail himself, in order to avoid the sentence in this particular case, of the pardon referred to.
Wilson’s refusal put the courts in a bind of almost novelistic proportions, requiring them to determine whether a pardon could unseal the fate of a criminal against his wish to see it sealed.
To resolve such a question, Marshall found little in America’s own nascent legal tradition and thus adopted the “principles” and “rules” of English law. In so doing, Marshall carved out an honored place for mercy.
He described a pardon of the kind rendered by President Jackson as “an act of grace, proceeding from the power entrusted with the execution of the laws….” This grace is seemingly beyond the reach of legal compulsion or regulation; it is a grace freely given or withheld finding its only home, as Blackstone put it, in “a court of equity in … [the President’s] own breast.”
But, at least since the dawn of the tough on crime era of American politics in the 1970s, the grace, mercy, and compassion that Marshall associated with the clemency power have fallen out of favor. And, with their decline, so has clemency.
But Healey is bucking the trend and carving out a new path. In 2023, she became the first Massachusetts governor in decades to recommend any pardons in her first year in office. She has already pardoned 13 people.
Moreover, the new guidelines announce her view that “The exercise of executive clemency is a vital part of the criminal justice system.” They note that “By issuing clemency, a governor can do what is right rather than what is merely expedient….”
Among the reasons that Governor Healey says she will use in considering requests for pardons and commutations are “correcting legal errors, writing systemic wrongs, addressing historical injustices, exercising compassion, showing mercy, promoting equity, and fighting racism.”
The governor recognizes that changing the way we think about clemency can help set a new climate for criminal justice policy. She intends to do so by “rewarding personal growth, recognizing the reality that people change over time, facilitating rehabilitation and reintegration into society, and ensuring that formerly incarcerated individuals are able to contribute to their families and communities to the full extent of their capacity consistent with public safety and the rule of law.”
That Governor Healey was previously the state’s attorney general and now serves as the chief executive in one of the bluest of blue states may help explain her determination to change criminal justice and clemency policy in her state. But whatever her reasons, she has brought a ray of hope to an area of public policy that has for too long been driven by timidity and fear.