Governors' power to pardon should rarely be used

The power to grant pardons and clemency should be used only in situations where the justice system has failed.

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Until this month, Gov. Chris Gregoire has not used her power of pardon and clemency since the 2009 shooting of four Lakewood police officers. The killer's prison sentence had been commuted by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

In the wake of the cold-blooded killings, the public -- in Washington state and across the nation -- was outraged the gunman, Maurice Clemmons, was released early from his 108-year sentence for eight felony charges, some violent.

The Lakewood murders caused all governors to pause and consider the political consequences of using their power to grant pardons and clemency, Seattle Times reporter Jonathan Martin wrote recently in an exploration of the clemency issue.

"In the modern political climate, governors are held accountable when a person granted clemency goes on to commit more crimes. That minimizes the political distinction between pardon and commutation, and skews the political calculus -- all risk, with little reward from voters for appearing merciful," Martin wrote. "Proponents of clemency bemoan that fact, but Clemmons is the new case study for its consequences."

We see the sparse use of clemency as positive. The power to grant pardons and clemency should be used only in situations where the justice system has failed.

Yes, politics plays a role -- and it should. Governors, after all, are accountable to the people. The decisions governors make on pardons and clemency must ultimately be accepted by the people.

Gregoire, who spent a dozen years as the state attorney general, has a history of using sparingly the power to commute sentences.

Recently Gregoire used her power to pardon Jose Dominguez, a man convicted of having a dime bag of cocaine more than 20 years ago. The drugs were found on a shelf in a house he shared with several other farmworkers in the Yakima area.

Dominguez, who was from Mexico, met his attorney for the first time in court and was advised to plead guilty with a promise he'd go free. Instead, he was deported, Martin reported.

Dominguez has continued to maintain he never possessed nor used drugs. He eventually married a U.S. citizen and returned -- legally -- to Yakima. But his conviction has made it difficult for Dominguez to find work.

After the matter was reviewed and vetted by the five-member Clemency and Pardons Board, Gregoire decided to pardon Dominguez.

Gregoire, now in her second term, has granted 26 acts of clemency. In most of those cases, she takes action on behalf of those who have lived crime-free and who had a difficult time earning a living. None of the decisions was easy, Gregoire said.

"Do I worry about them? Absolutely," Gregoire said. "There's no science to this. There are no guarantees. I've searched my soul, and I fundamentally believe in rehabilitation. But I'm pretty strict about it. I want to really believe it."

The decision to intervene on behalf of a convicted felon should be used only in rare occasions and only when the goal is to ensure justice is served.

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