The 50 days of Easter are intended for reflection on Jesus’ resurrection and triumph over death. The season is not usually used to contemplate the power of presidential clemency in the face of the United State's prison-industrial complex — but the biblical story does offer details pertinent to today’s commutation and pardoning process.
Resurrection-minded thinking can reevaluate how political mercy is meted out. By worshipping a risen Lord, Christians praise a story that swaps conviction for redemption. Easter compels believers to recall God’s transformation of injustice into freedom. This Easter week, Christians should consider their own human capacity for granting clemency to those who have been wronged.
The political climate of the U.S. in 2017 is different from that of first-century Judea, but rulers from both eras engage problematically with a courts system that betrays them. Both scenarios result in continued imprisonment of people undeserving of the enormity of their punishment. In both times, a prisoner’s best option is to plead for a pardon.
The biblical portrayal of Jesus’ crucifixion casts a spotlight on Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect governing Judea. Although Pilate was responsible for sentencing Jesus to the cross, the New Testament emphasizes Pilate’s reluctance during the conviction. Each of the four gospels notes that prior to the verdict, Pilate defers to a Passover custom where citizens choose a prisoner to release — what later came to be called a “paschal pardon.” Pilate’s preference is Jesus, but the crowd selects Barabbas, an insurrectionist and murderer. Pilate capitulates to the people’s demands, releasing Barabbas while Jesus is flogged on the way to death row.
Paschal pardon here exemplifies a miscarriage of justice for one of the prisoners. The custom condemns Jesus, whose guilt is dubious. Ultimately, Jesus divinely conquers the unjust system at hand when he walks freely among his disciples in the flesh, three days after he is crucified as a criminal. But the possibility of a triumphant erasure of crime in the U.S. is limited. Constitutionally, the president can offer clemency — or “leniency” — for any federal offense, aside from cases involved with impeachment, by two methods: commute, which lessens the sentence but retains civil restrictions like the loss of the right to vote, or pardon, which eliminates the sentence entirely.
The Obama administration made clemency a priority in response to the U.S.' mass incarceration and the overwhelming number of non-violent drug convictions.
Obama gave clemency to 1,927 individuals during his tenure — a high number in comparison to his recent predecessors . He used his authority to atone for overly harsh, often discriminatory, drug-related sentences. But Obama received a record 36,544 requests for clemency, so his clemency-to-petition ratio is relatively low — only five percent.
According to the gospels, Pontius Pilate also attempts to challenge injustice. He disagrees with his citizens’ censure of Jesus, pleads with them to reconsider, and tries to absolve himself of blood lust through physically cleansing his hands. From a reader’s perspective, we see a leader with political capital who expresses reservations but does not successfully stop an unfair crucifixion from occurring.
In the U.S., when justice is not properly dispensed, inmates hope for direct presidential interference. Executive clemency mitigates justice with mercy.
And while compassion plays wonderfully for chosen individuals, it does not fix the systemic issue in which the U.S. imprisons more people, per capita, than any other country . Nixon-era legislation resulted in punitive consequences that presidents now must attempt to compensate for more than forty years later. Even if the president uses his capacity for good, the vast majority of clemency applications are denied, and the prison problem persists.
As a checks-and-balances method to keep the judicial branch in order, executive clemency is currently too limited to make a significant difference. The severity of sentencing that has caused a rapid rise in our inmate population is primarily a failure of the justice system, and ideally would be treated as such. At the present rate, clemency does not proportionately curb judicial blunders, or brutality and the laws that substantiate them. But for now, it is a resource that can be used to right the wrongs.
President Trump has yet to exercise clemency. This means hundreds of petitions have gone unanswered . As Christians observe the season of Easter and commemorate God’s grace through Jesus’ sacrifice, they would be wise to consider how grace intertwines with the U.S.' three-pronged government.
Jesus walked freely after his wrongful conviction. Perhaps we should explore the judiciary realm with the mindset of one humbled by God’s mercy, embodied in the resurrection, and acknowledge the crucial role of clemency in our broken criminal system.