Since taking office, Gov. Bobby Jindal has taken action on few recommendations for pardons, sentence reductions and parole eligibility changes, allowing hundreds more to accumulate on his desk awaiting his action.
The recommendations that reach the governor are sent to him by the Pardon Board that he appoints.
The board weighs whether hunting rights should be restored, prison sentences should be trimmed and parole eligibility dates should be pushed up. The board only makes recommendations, leaving final authority to the governor.
In most cases, a pardon is not a get-out-of-jail card but simply the restoration of hunting or other rights to former convicts.
Only a fraction of the people who receive recommendations from the Pardon Board actually are in prison.
In some cases clemency is granted on multiple charges. For instance, Gov. Kathleen Blanco granted 374 clemency recommendations involving 331 individuals.
The Jindal administration and the Pardon Board disagree on how many recommendations have been sent to governor. Pardon Board records list 398 recommendations as of July 31. Jindal’s press secretary, Kyle Plotkin, said the administration has received only 331 files.
Jindal has granted 23 pardons and one sentence reduction in nearly four years in office. He denied recommendations on 28 pardons, seven parole eligibility changes and one sentence reduction. More than 300 recommendations are awaiting a grant or denial from him, including 57 from 2008, according to the Pardon Board’s list.
The governor declined to discuss individual cases Tuesday.
“Our approach to pardons is we’re very deliberate,” he said. “Pardons are only appropriate for exceptional cases.”
Jindal said he believes there is a reason that state law creates multiple steps for receiving clemency.
“I don’t think we’re supposed to just automatically approve the ones the board sends to us,” Jindal said Tuesday.
Jindal’s clemency rate trails that of former Gov. David Treen, who granted fewer than 200 during his single four-year term in office. Other recent governors approved at least 300 clemency requests.
Past governors said they relied on the advice of the people they appointed to the Louisiana Board of Pardons, even if it took awhile.
Former Gov. Mike Foster waited until almost three years into his first term to start granting pardons, saying he wanted to be comfortable with the process. Gaining that comfort level included making changes in the Pardon Board’s membership.
He targeted nonviolent offenders for his first batch of clemency approvals, he said.
Foster said in a recent telephone interview that he generally did not question the board’s recommendations. “I had a really good board. I had people running the board who were very conscientious,” he said.
In eight years, Foster granted 432 clemency applications out of 769 recommendations, according to Pardon Board records.
Former Gov. Edwin Edwards approved more than 3,000 recommendations during his 16 years in office, including restoring the firearms rights of a man who later killed Edwards’ brother, Nolan.
Without citing the tragedy, Edwards said Tuesday that he occasionally made a mistake.
He said for the most part his pardons allowed people to get a license, go to law school or pursue a profession. “I always acted on it because it was part of my job and I appointed capable, competent, concerned people to the Pardon Board,” Edwards said.
He said Jindal is probably finding it difficult to act on his Pardon Board’s recommendations because he spends so much time out of the state. Jindal has drawn criticism for traveling to other states to raise money for his re-election campaign and to promote his book.
“If a governor’s going to sit on the recommendation, he might as well not have a board and save the money,” Edwards said.
Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco said she met every few months with her Pardon Board chairman and executive counsel to review clemency recommendations. Often times, she said, they would work the entire day, stopping only for lunch.
“We diligently worked on it. We would take maybe a whole day and work on it,” she said. “You just have to do it. Everybody deserved due process.”
Blanco came into office not long after the Louisiana Legislature eliminated the automatic life sentence for heroin-related charges. Those sentenced under the old law kept their life sentences while the newly convicted got substantially less time in prison.
The Pardon Board recommended that Blanco reduce the life sentences of at least 34 inmates serving life sentences on heroin-related charges. She granted all of the recommendations.
Reviewing the cases of the recommendations Jindal has approved is sometimes difficult. On three particular cases, Pardon Board officials earlier this week said the case files were at the Governor’s Office. Asked about the files, Jindal administration officials said they were back en route to the Pardon Board.
Most of the cases Jindal has granted, according to the Pardon Board’s records, have been on minor drug or theft charges. He refused to restore the firearms rights of a man convicted of six counts of armed robbery despite the Pardon Board’s recommendation.
Only one person serving a life sentence on a heroin-related charge has received relief from Jindal.
Wesley Dick briefly won release from prison in 2006 as the courts grappled with how to treat inmates sentenced under the old heroin statute. Dick allegedly sold heroin to an undercover officer for a $50 profit. Freed from prison in 2006, he got a job and started supporting his daughters before the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that the change in the sentencing provisions was not retroactive.
Back in prison, Dick applied to the Pardon Board for a commutation of sentence. Jindal granted it in 2009.
The governor’s acting chief of staff, Stephen Waguespack, said the decision made sense because of how Dick conducted himself during the short time he was out of prison.
“He showed he could hold a job (and) care for his daughters,” Waguespack said Tuesday.
Jindal denied a sentence reduction for another so-called heroin lifer, Gayle Neidhardt. Now 68, Neidhardt told the Pardon Board that she plans to answer phones at a Kenner plumbing company and live with a friend if she is given a chance at freedom. She said she is battling cancer, so her plans depend on her health.
Waguespack said Neidhardt did not merit clemency. He refused to elaborate.