Louisiana Inauguration

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards takes the oath of office with his wife, Donna, at his side during his inauguration for his second term at the State Capitol.

For much of Louisiana's history, people sentenced to life in prison were routinely released on parole after serving about a decade behind bars, sometimes less.

That changed in the 1970s when state legislators eliminated parole for all lifers, a decision that put more pressure on Louisiana's clemency process — now the only possible relief valve for more than 4,000 people sentenced to life without parole in Louisiana, which imposes such sentences at the highest rate in the nation.

Clemency decisions ultimately rest with Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, who has campaigned on a promise of criminal justice reform aimed at reducing Louisiana's vast prison population. He began his second and final term as governor last month.

Since taking office, he has signed 34 commutations of sentence, allowing people convicted of serious violent crimes to be released on parole after decades behind bars. That's a significant increase over the three granted by his predecessor, Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal — but still only 16 percent of the 207 positive recommendations forwarded to his office from the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Parole, which completes its own stringent review process.

Edwards won reelection last fall despite well-funded Republican groups blasting him for championing sentencing reform, and he has pledged to continue pushing for change. In the meantime, prisoner advocates argue that signing more commutations is one small step he can take toward mitigating the impacts of Louisiana's harsh mandatory sentencing laws.

"We have to remember that in Louisiana, this is the only mechanism available to thousands of people who will otherwise die in prison," said Ashley Nellis, senior research analyst for the national nonprofit The Sentencing Project. "That's what should lend some urgency to the governor's decisions."

The state's 2017 criminal justice reform package, which Edwards helped usher into law, softened sentences for minor and nonviolent crimes but stopped short of a more comprehensive overhaul that would have brought Louisiana closer in line with its neighbors. Most states allow parole for lifers — typically people convicted of murder and aggravated rape — after 20 or 30 years.

Edwards declined an interview request for this article.

'Why … take the risk?'

Louisiana's recent history has seen the use of clemency shift from one extreme to the other.

Prior to Jindal's three sentence commutations, which he signed over eight years in office, Kathleen Blanco signed 129 commutations in the early 2000s. Edwin Edwards signed 945 during his first two terms starting in 1972, then another 335 during his third term.

How many commutations did each governor grant?

"I always acted on it because it was part of my job and I appointed capable, competent, concerned people to the pardon board," Edwin Edwards told the Advocate in 2011, while discussing Jindal's failure to take action on many applications. "If a governor's going to sit on the recommendation, he might as well not have a board and save the money."

Jindal argued that clemency was appropriate only in "exceptional cases" and that there's a reason the process involves multiple steps to weed out others.

Commutations are most often granted to people currently incarcerated on serious charges, reducing their sentence or giving them earlier parole eligibility. They're different from pardons, which usually apply to people who have finished serving their sentences, often for more minor crimes, and have requested that the offense is removed from their record. Pardons are more common and easier to obtain than commutations.

Though perhaps more extreme in Louisiana, the downward trend in clemency — particularly sentence commutations for people convicted of violent crimes — is reflected nationwide. Experts attribute the drop to a few controversial cases that were met with heated political backlash, most famously the Willie Horton scandal, which became a defining issue in the 1988 presidential race.

Horton, a convicted murderer, was serving a life sentence in Massachusetts when he failed to return from a weekend furlough program, then raped a woman and stabbed her fiance. The George H.W. Bush campaign ran attack ads slamming his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, who had been governor of Massachusetts when Horton escaped.

That incident had nothing to do with the clemency process itself, but nonetheless stoked widespread fears about letting violent criminals go free. It also coincided with a series of "tough on crime" policies that originated during the 1970s and '80s when violent crime spiked in major American cities.

"All it takes is one news story, and that's what happened with the Willie Horton case," said Rachel Barkow, an NYU Law professor whose research has focused on clemency. "The public is very receptive to those scare tactics and then politicians start thinking, 'Why should I take the risk?'"

Last fall, when John Bel Edwards was running for reelection as the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, one of his most prominent and well-funded political enemies, Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry, formed a Super PAC to hammer the governor for the criminal justice reforms he supported.

The PAC, called Make Louisiana Great Again, quickly raised more than $1 million from oil and gas and other business interests, and launched a TV ad that featured dramatized depictions of violent crimes and accused Edwards of letting "thousands of criminals out of jail early." That ad, and similar ones launched by Edwards' opponent, Eddie Rispone, drew fire from conservative groups that helped pass the bipartisan criminal justice reforms.

Barkow said governors across the country have adopted an overcautious approach to clemency because of similar orchestrated attacks, though commutations have recently become somewhat more common in a few states, including California and Pennsylvania — which also house outsized populations of people serving life without parole. She said John Bel Edwards has already demonstrated his commitment to the process through the pardons and commutations he signed during his first term.

"He should be commended for what he's done, particularly in a Southern state," she said. "Governors who are doing this out of a sense of principal and decency, that's really admirable."

'Old narratives'

When Edwards took office, he quickly signed 22 commutations in his first year — largely to make up for the backlog from Jindal. He signed another 10 over the next several months, then stopped for the remainder of his term, resuming the practice only after he won reelection. He signed two commutations this past December.

How Gov. Edwards' administration processes clemency requests

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Meanwhile positive recommendations have been steadily trickling into his office and now totaling more than 200.

Statistically it's almost impossible to have a sentence commuted, although pardons are more common, according to data from the governor's office and the pardon board collected since Edwards took office. Just 3 percent of all applications for sentence commutations received since 2016 have been granted thus far.

But criminal justice reform advocates are optimistic Edwards will sign more over the next four years.

"Commutation powers have been weaponized politically … but these are old narratives, and more people are starting to see understand that clemency is there for a reason," said Kerry Myers, deputy director of the Louisiana Parole Project, which helps former state prisoners re-enter society. "When the sentencing structure doesn't allow for redemption or discretion, that's where this process comes in."

It also lends an occasional glimmer of hope for people sentenced to life in Louisiana, he said, giving them something to strive for even if success is exceedingly rare. There are guidelines in state law that dictate when a person can apply for clemency and then reapply after being denied.

Marcus Kondkar, a sociology professor at Loyola University whose current research project involves conducting filmed interviews with dozens of Louisiana lifers, said some inmates described a prolonged state of limbo during the application process, which becomes most acute for those who have received a positive recommendation from the pardon board but are awaiting a decision from the governor.

"But overall the process gives them something to cling onto," Kondkar said. "The minute you accept a true life sentence, you lose hope. It's that simple."

The Louisiana Department of Corrections declined the Advocate's recent request for inmate interviews pertaining to the clemency process.

Weeding out applicants

The process is designed to weed out applications at various stages, starting with a decision from members of the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Parole — made up of people appointed by the governor — on whether to hear the case.

The application was revamped in 2016, growing from one page to 16, said Francis Abbott, executive director of the board. Data shows about half of all applicants don't even receive a hearing.

Hearings give the board a chance to publicly review a case and question the applicant. For commutation requests, considerations often include the inmate's background, circumstances of their crime, accomplishments and disciplinary history while incarcerated, and opposition from victims or law enforcement. They also use an assessment tool that runs a series of factors through an algorithm to determine a person's likelihood of committing another crime once released.

Research also shows people "age out" of crime, meaning their likelihood of getting rearrested decreases the older they get. LSU research published in 2013 shows almost nonexistent recidivism rates among former Louisiana lifers who were released on commuted sentences.

Board staff members spend months gathering material for the board to review, including reaching out to local law enforcement, prosecutors and victims or their surviving relatives. Cases without victim opposition are more likely to end with a positive recommendation from the board, according to prisoner advocates involved in the clemency process.

"So much goes into these decisions, but the focus is first and foremost on public safety. That's the board's top priority," Abbott said. "We're trying to put the power in the victims' hands. We want them at the table."

Loren Lampert, associate director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, said he believes the clemency process allows for sentence review in "extraordinary cases" and — when operated as intended — "fits within the legal, technical and moral notions of justice and fairness." He said the primary concern for prosecutors is "assuring that the victims and their representatives have … the opportunity to provide real and meaningful input."

Of course the board's role is limited to making recommendations to the governor. The final decision is up to him.

Some of the cases awaiting Edwards' signature include the following:

  • A man convicted of second-degree murder in 1989 following his honorable discharge from the U.S. Marines. He had no prior criminal history but had become addicted to crack after returning home and ultimately stabbed someone who stole his drugs. Now 56 years old, he's been in Angola for more than three decades, where he serves as an inmate counsel and is engaged to be married.
  • A man who was 19 when he helped his co-defendant, who strangled the victim to death, hide the body by throwing it in the bayou. He was on drugs at the time and had dropped out of school in 10th grade when his father died. He's since earned his GED at Angola and completed a car mechanic training program during his 30 years in prison.
  • A man convicted of aggravated kidnapping after he and his co-defendant forced a woman into a car, made her cash a $300 check and give them the money, and then let her out at an apartment complex. He was a senior in high school at the time. Now 44 years old, he works as a carpenter and woodworker in Angola.

"Certainly these are difficult decisions to make, but if all the recommendations sit on the governor's desk indefinitely after such a thorough vetting process, that's a waste of time and resources," said Charles "Gee Gee" Hargon, a member of the steering committee for statewide conservative criminal justice reform group Smart on Crime. "These are rehabilitated people who are costing the state money when they could instead be working and paying taxes."

Getting pardoned

People applying for pardons have different goals, most often winning back their right to vote, own a gun and run for public office.

When Tracy Andrus walked out of a pardon board hearing in Baton Rouge a few years ago, he remembers thinking he definitely wouldn't receive a positive recommendation. The board had drilled him with hard questions about his life since leaving prison for issuing worthless checks and felony theft.

Andrus, who earned multiple advanced degrees after leaving prison and now serves as a criminal justice professor at Wiley College in Texas, was surprised to learn that the board had sent a positive recommendation to the governor. Several months later, a big brown envelope arrived at his Texas home, and he opened it to find out his record would be cleared thanks to Edwards.

"I read that and Lord, I almost passed out," said Andrus, now 57. "When I get out and am prevented from doing certain things because of my criminal record, that's like opening the wound again. And that's what millions of people with criminal records are dealing with right now in America."

He's still waiting on a pardon from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott for his crimes committed in that state, though he understands it's unlikely since Abbott typically grants just a handful each year, around Christmastime. If Andrus' request is ever granted, he hopes to run for public office in Texas — maybe even for governor.

Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.