When I was a law student I worked on a clemency petition for a child who was sent to an adult prison in Florida for 9 years for her first offense. At 12 years old, she entered prison as the youngest inmate in the Florida Department of Corrections. It is worth noting that Florida sends more children to adult prison than all other states in the country combined. As I worked on her clemency petition I learned that in the weeks leading up to her committing the crime, robbery of her grandmother’s home, she had been examined by two psychologists who both recommended that she be given immediate in-patient care. I also found out that the source of her distress was that she was being abandoned by her mother who had run off with a man she had met, dumping the young girl on a grandmother who didn’t want her and who communicated this to her by getting rid of the twin bed the child was sleeping on, forcing the child to sleep on the floor. The state of Florida wasn’t there to help this child. A prosecutor later told me there was no money for the mental health treatment she needed. Instead, the state provided her with a much more expensive 9-year prison sentence as an adult.
I argued her clemency petition at the state capitol before then Governor Jeb Bush and his cabinet. I told Jeb Bush about her history of abuse and abandonment. How her Mother had left the country and had never once visited her in prison. I told him about how she had earned a GED in prison and showed him her nearly flawless behavior record. I shared with him her statement of regret. I asked him to let her out of the prison where she had been for the past 5 years and showed him the plan for treatment and recovery that we had put in place. As I spoke, Governor Jeb Bush played with the pencils on his desk and rocked back and forth in his giant power chair. He didn’t seem to take much interest. I don’t remember him asking me any questions. When I had finished he politely thanked me for my presentation and nearly a year later sent a notice that he denied her request for clemency.
“Truthfully, I’d be happy to see many more pardons and acts of clemency coming from the President and our Governors.”
As I read the newspaper reports of Donald Trump’s granting a pardon to an unrepentant former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, I think back to asking for clemency for that young woman. Truthfully, I’d be happy to see many more pardons and acts of clemency coming from the President and our Governors. A shift towards a more compassionate criminal justice system in our nation is long-overdue, but that’s not what this is. Instead, it’s a move away from a more compassionate system. It’s nothing more than one tyrant protecting another. Trump didn’t pardon Arpaio because Arpaio made a regretted mistake or because Arpaio has shown himself to be a man deserving of mercy. Arpaio, a man who swore an oath to uphold the law, willfully defied that law and elevated himself to the role of judge, jury, and executioner when he defied an order from a federal Judge. Trump pardoned Arpaio as a way of weakening Judicial authority and letting everyone know that, for those who are on Trump’s team, the Courts and the laws of our nation are not a factor.
“It’s nothing more than one tyrant protecting another.”
I wish that I could say that this is an anomaly in our legal system, but it’s not. Too many times I’ve seen the well-connected and privileged protected by the system while people like the young girl whose clemency was denied by Jeb Bush are eaten alive by the system. It really depresses me sometimes to work in a system that so often seems unfair. I recall the words of a cynical law professor who said that the legal system exists to maintain the class structure in all but the most extreme cases. I fear that soon, even extreme cases of injustice will no longer find a remedy in our legal system.