On the day before Easter, Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned 65 convicted criminals. All of them had already served prison time, been free for at least 10 years, and, according to the Governor's office, had maintained clean records ever since. Most were drug offenders, though one man had been locked up for murder.
For the pardoned, Brown's move restores to them various rights that they had lost as felons-- they can now serve on jury trials, possess firearms, and apply for work as probation officers.
For Brown, the pardons further established him as the man who's reversed California's hard-line criminal justice policy. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger granted 16 pardons over seven years. Gov. Gray Davis granted none. Through two years and change, Brown is at 214 and counting. A lengthy roll call by the standards of any state.
Brown does not own the crown of most forgiving governor. But he's keeping pace with his competition.
Brown currently averages 7.9 pardons per month, or 95 per year (prorated). Among his chief competitors, though, he has the most potential years left in office, giving him a higher ceiling for total pardons.
Illinois governor Pat Quinn and Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe have set the pace, with Quinn building a solid lead. Beebe has granted 529 pardons over six-plus years-- an average of 7 per months, or 84 per year. Quinn has granted 842 pardons over four-plus years, which amounts to a hefty 16.5 per month, or 198 per year.
All three of them are chasing former Pennsylvania Ed Rendell's mark. Rendell pardoned 1,059 people over eight years (132 per year).
But we're slicing the meat too fine now. Because whatever the clemency gap between Brown and Quinn and Beebe, it's certainly far smaller than the gap between these governors and their more high-profile contemporaries.
The big-name governors, those progressive stalwarts jockeying for Democrats' hearts in 2016, have no desire to go anywhere near the Most Forgiving Governor throne. Call it a case of Dukakisitis. Or Williehortonphobia.
New York governor Andrew Cuomo and Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick have granted zero pardons. Maryland governor Martin O'Malley has granted 50 over six years.
On the other side of the aisle, Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, a Republican with a record of progressive criminal justice reform, granted 45 over two terms.
As those governors know, all it takes is one of those pardonees to go out and commit some gruesome-sounding crime and poof... presidential hopes dissolving in a haze of "soft on crime" attack ads, as former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis learned when he ran for president in 1988.
That's not to say that granting a bunch of pardons necessarily denotes the courageous governor with a forgiving soul and an irreverence toward political cynicism. Haley Barbour, former Mississippi governor, took much heat for his copious pardons, and the cronyism many saw in them. "The Mississippi governor shows mercy only to murderers who work on his house," read Slate's 2009 headline. "List of Pardons Included Many Tied to Power," read the New York Times' 2012 headline. On his last day in office, in January 2012, Barbour granted 198 pardons: "A significant share," the Times reported, "contained appeals from members of prominent Mississippi families, major Republican donors or others from the higher social strata of Mississippi life."
Quality over quantity applied to governor pardons, too.