why don't politicians use amnesty in an activist manner to reduce harsh prison terms?

the question is inspired by the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scott_sisters case involving 2 people sentenced to life in prison for first time serious felony (armed robbery). Given that there are at the very least 50 governors and 1 president out there plus potentially lots of similar cases of prison terms that would seem disproportionately brutal to many people (including to the office holders themselves) how come we don’t hear of anybody amnestying such cases by the thousand, especially in cases where the perpetrator already spent a “reasonable” amount of time in prison given the gravity of the offense?

E.g. for a least controversial case, why hasn’t any governor do a mass amnesty of all non-violent offenders punished for low key marijuana offenses?

Incidentally, not only would such measures be humane and “right thing to do” IMHO to the people involved, but they might also help push the justice system towards more reasonable sentencing, with the implied threat of unreasonable sentences amnestied away.

Gov. George Ryan of Illinois commuted the sentences of all people on death row two days before leaving office.

Must have done him some good, since he seems to be coping well in prison. :smiley:

As for why mass amnesties are not popular, it’s because candidates don’t want to be attacked as being soft on crime. I don’t think you’ll find a single mainstream candidate campaigning in a platform to release non-violent marijuana offenders, so it’s no surprise that they haven’t gone and done so.

I think what you mean is a pardon, not an amnesty. I’m not entirely sure on the dictionary meanings here, but I am under the impression that pardons are executive acts (performed in the U.S. by the President using his powers under federal law, or Governors under the state law), whereas amnesties are acts of the legislature. But I might be wrong here.

As to why mass amnesties/pardons are rare: It’s, I guess, a combination of political tactics - candidates don’t want to be perceived as soft on crime - and respect for the separation of powers, from which stems the idea that amnesties/pardons should be used sparingly since it is not a matter for the executive to interfere with the business of the judiciary. Maybe that’s a naively idealistic view on politics, but I at least hope that this thinking is present as well.

Two words:
Willie Horton

Amnesty is a broad term which can refer to a legislative act, like a tax amnesty period, or to an executive act, like Carter’s amnesty for Vietnam draft-dodgers. In the latter case, Carter was acting through his executive authority to grant “pardons and reprieves.”

Sounds reasonable. I consulted the Wikipedia articles on pardon and amnesty, and the difference between the two seems to be that a pardon forgives a crime and the associated penalty - the crime has been committed, but the person cannot be prosecuted or punished for it. An amnesty seems to go further and, according to Wiki, obliterates all legal remembrance of the act, which I read to mean that the crime is deemed to never have been committed in the first place.

I believe that he means commuting sentences which governors certainly have the power to do.

I believe the only GQ answer possible is that various elected officials have different views on how pardons, commutations, or amnesties are viewed by the public or promote the interests of justice.

In general, legislatures have generally been “tough on crime” by enacting mandatory minimums for some offenses, and limiting the ability to parole those who have been convicted of crimes. In my opinion, asking why legislatures do not advocate more amnesties is like asking why more cowboys aren’t vegan: asking the question seems to indicate a fundamental gap in knowledge about the subject of the question.

There have been elected leaders who were more assertive in using the power of pardons. Governor Huckabee in Arkansas issued more than 1,000 pardons or commutations, and as mentioned earlier, Governor Ryan of Illinois commuted the death sentences of 160-odd prisoners.

But in general, I don’t think the public really wants a more lenient justice system, and elected leaders tend to reflect that view. Whether or not that is a reasonable position to hold is a debatable matter.

If there were general public support for an amnesty/pardon for simple marijuana possession (for example), then there would be general public support for repeal of the law that criminalized it in the first place.

If there’s no support for repeal of the law, then any governor granting amnesty/pardon for it would be committing political suicide. That’s why they don’t use it in that manner.

Governors may also be reluctant to set aside verdicts which were reached at trial by judges and juries who, presumably, acted in good faith and knew what they were doing.
For example, in Pennsylvania (unless things have changed since I last studied this) a life sentence means a life sentence. A prisoner serving life never automatically becomes eligible for parole just by serving a certain amount of time. Lifers are paroled by the governor himself, through the Governor’s Board of Pardons, if at all. The board reviews the case, interviews everybody involved with the case who may still be alive, and then presents their findings to the governor. Tom Ridge, in his time as governor, signed exactly zero paroles. He was quoted to me as stating that if the jury found that man guilty then he was guilty and that if the judge imposed a life sentence, then he must have mant for that man to spend the rest of his life in prison.

This. Politicians aren’t going to just issue a blanket pardon of everyone they feel has been wronged by “The Man,” because there’s too much risk of it coming back and biting them in the ass.

They’re not going to put their political reputation on the line unless a) they’re close to 100 percent sure that the person is innocent and isn’t going to be a menace to society upon their release or b) there’s pressure from their political base to issue the pardon.

A case of the latter happened a few years back when two border patrol agents were convicted of shooting a suspected drug smuggler. There was a lot of the pressure from the right for Bush to pardon them (he never did give them a full pardon, but he did commute their sentences).

In the past week, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico took a pass on pardoning Billy the Kid, who was found guilty some 130 years ago. So, even where the risk of something “coming back and biting them on the ass” is exceedingly small or the consequences arguably light, there is still a perceived political down-side.

I doubt that public opinion is all that clear cut on the marijuana issue. My WAG is that this is a topic where you can get any answer you want from the poll by using an appropriate propaganda spin. E.g. maybe a generic “do you want marijuana criminalized” would elicit one response whereas “do you want a whole bunch of young adults (photos and sob stories included) remain imprisoned for several years under (graphically depicted) bad conditions for this” the answer would be different. So perhaps when everybody campaigns under “tough on crime” slogan, a “humane and tough on injustice” might be an unfilled political market niche.

I wasn’t saying anything about marijuana laws. That was just an example I pulled out of my ass. I could have easily said “bank robbery”, instead, and it would have made my point just as well. Perhaps better, since as you rightly point out, the state of public opinion on marijuana laws is not so clear cut.

There have been a couple of cases where, right before the end of his term, an outgoing governor would commute all of the death-row inmates to life imprisonment.

It usually happens when the governor is not eligible to run for another term.

Governor…why are you soft on crime?

Maybe I’m overly naive and idealistic to raise the separation of powers idea again, but one could make the point that Governors or Presidents should not amnesty away sentences because he or she thinks that they are unreasonable. Suppose an office holder thinks the way you describe (I’m not arguing in favour or against that position, but certainly there may be office holders who think that way). Nonetheless, the laws that provide for these sentences have been passed by the constitutionally competent and legitimate legislature after a proper decision-making process, and the sentences themselves have been inflicted by the competent and legitimate judges. Even a Governor or President who disagrees with these outcomes may still feel that it would be proper to defer to these decisions rather than do anything available to mess with them.

That is the best example I can think of though.

How many governors are openly for decriminalizing pot?

Another common connotation of an amnesty is that it is a statement that people will not be charged for a crime (like an amnesty for paying back taxes or turning in overdue library books or illegal firearms) whereas a pardon is made after the person has been charged and convicted.

I agree with those who say it’s because politicians don’t want to be accused of being soft on crime. Mike Huckabee’s 2012 presidential hopes may already have taken a serious knock for a previous grant of clemency: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/11/29/multiple-police-officers-_n_373119.html

U.S. Presidents used to, on average, grant pardons and commutations far more often than they do nowadays. I read an article in law school about the pardon power; plowing through petitions for P&C was one of the common recurring paperwork burdens of the President until relatively recently, and they were granted a lot more routinely. Here’s a good overview: http://ednet.rvc.cc.il.us/~PeterR/Papers/paper3.htm (scroll down about halfway, to the section headed “Executive Clemency 1789 to 1995: A Snapshot”). And here’s a piece on President Obama’s P&Cs so far: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20101203/ap_on_go_pr_wh/us_obama_pardons.