When President Trump granted a posthumous pardon to legendary boxer Jack Johnson Thursday, he showed, once again, that he is willing to use his clemency authority in high-profile cases.
Trump has issued four pardons in his first 16 months as president, including the one for Johnson. Each of these pardons involved public figures or cases that received media attention — from former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio to I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Jr.
Clemency advocates say Trump’s willingness to use his authority in noteworthy cases will likely spur more prisoners to try to get their stories on Trump’s radar.
“They’re going to go to what works, and if what works with this president is going on Fox News, you’re going to see a lot of people trying to go on Fox News,” said Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota.
Trump pardoned Kristian Saucier, a former Navy sailor, in March after Saucier appeared on Fox & Friends. Saucier pleaded guilty to illegally retaining photographs of classified areas in a nuclear submarine.
Trump is currently outpacing his three most recent predecessors in terms of clemency. At this point in their White House tenures, former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton had not issued any pardons.
Issuing pardons used to be a more common practice. But presidents have become more circumspect about using the power in the past few decades, often ramping up approvals closer to end of their time in office.
In his last two years as president, Obama issued a record number of commutations through an initiative aimed lessening sentences for non-violent drug offenders.
Some criminal-justice reform advocates applauded Obama’s efforts, but they argue many more people still need relief from lengthy sentences doled out at the height of America’s “war on drugs.”
Seeking the spotlight for freedom
Amy Povah experienced the issue first hand. She was handed a 24-year sentence in a conspiracy drug case in the 1990s, involving her then-husband’s illegal manufacturing of the drug ecstasy.
Povah was able to get the attention of lawmakers after her story was published in Glamour magazine.
The article shed light on how women only marginally connected to drug trafficking were receiving much tougher sentences than their male counterparts, because they had less information to offer prosecutors to secure plea deals.
After nine years in prison and direct appeals from lawmakers, Clinton commuted her sentence in 2000.
Since gaining her freedom, Povah has worked to publicize cases similar to hers.
Povah is hopeful that Trump will be open to giving a second chance to applicants who have been overlooked by the Justice Department, which helps to review clemency petitions.
“One thing that I’m optimistic about is that he is not the kind of person that is going to just allow the Department of Justice to make all the final decisions,” Povah said.
Trump’s pardons have not necessarily adhered to Justice Department guidelines.
The Justice Department usually asks people to wait five years after their conviction or release before applying for a pardon. That did not happen in the case of Arpaio, who was pardoned before he was even sentenced.
The department also generally frowns upon granting pardons for applicants who have died, but that did not stop Trump from pardoning Johnson.
Famous supporters weigh in
Povah’s organization, CAN-DO Clemency, is currently working to secure the release of Alice Marie Johnson, a great-grandmother who has spent more than two decades in federal prison for a first-time offense.
Johnson’s video interview with news website Mic attracted the attention of reality TV megastar Kim Kardashian West.
Kardashian West has taken up Johnson’s cause, reaching out to the White House about Johnson.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment about Johnson’s case.
In the case of Johnson, Trump said he began considering a pardon for the boxer after he was contacted by actor Sylvester Stallone.
Stallone was at the White House when the pardon for Jack Johnson was announced.
Critics of the federal clemency process argue that, even before Trump, it often played out like a lottery, where it’s unclear why some prisoners get relief and others do not.
Trump’s focus on cases with high visibility is unlikely to change that dynamic, Osler said.
“If it is a celebrity-driven pardon system, who’s left behind are some of the people who are most deserving, the ones with the most compelling stories,” he said. “It’s just that those stories aren’t being taken up by a celebrity or major media outlets.”