The Washington Post Sunday
Northam’s work on pardons is not done
By granting posthumous pardons to the “Martinsville Seven,” Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) seems determined to remedy some long-standing injustices before he leaves office in January. The seven Black men were executed in 1951 after a sham trial for the alleged rape of a White woman. They had no legal representation, and an all-White jury convicted them in just eight days.
“We all deserve a criminal justice system that is fair, equal and gets it right,” Northam said.
He is right, but though these posthumous pardons are laudable, the governor has only a few months left to use his pardon power to correct injustices for people who are still alive and serving unfair sentences in Virginia state prisons.
Virginia’s large prison population costs taxpayers $1.3 billion annually but, unlike most states, does not have discretionary parole. Conditional pardons are the only way out early for the many people in state prisons who have matured, aged and rehabilitated themselves and no longer need to be behind bars. People change and grow while they are in prison, but Virginia’s lengthy sentences and lack of parole limit second chances.
The seriously ill or elderly in prison are a low-risk population worthy of extra consideration for conditional pardons. Incarcerating large numbers of elderly and ill people is both cruel and counterproductive.
Data shows that people over age 60 had the lowest recidivism rate — just 8.4 percent — of all groups released from Virginia prisons. The elderly and ill also cost two or three times as much to incarcerate as younger people. No one is safer when prison beds are occupied by people in walkers or wheelchairs.
But there are many younger people in prison in Virginia deserving of a conditional pardon, as well.
Jesse Dunaway is the only person in the state serving a lifewithout-parole sentence for selling drugs. Dunaway was sentenced in his early 20s, after selling drugs to make ends meet. Dunaway is now almost 40 and has spent 15 years in prison.
He hasn’t wasted that time. He has taken every class he can, focusing on the culinary arts, and maintained relationships with his children against all odds. Dunaway’s lengthy sentence is a result of the way he was charged rather than what he actually did. Had he been sentenced as a “distributor” rather than, inexplicably, a “kingpin,” he would have served about nine years and been home long ago. By any rational measure of justice, 15 years in prison is enough already.
For countless Virginia families still struggling during the coronavirus pandemic, a loved one’s return from prison would be a game-changer. Incarcerated loved ones could be present at home serving as parents, partners, breadwinners — and taxpayers. Having a loved one home from prison could mean that kids stay in school, a marriage survives, rent gets paid and careers blossom. Dunaway has a lot of life left ahead of him, and his partner and children need him home for it.
To his credit, Northam is using his pardon power more generously than most other governors in the United States, and he has used it more often than the last nine Virginia governors combined: 604 pardons granted since he took office in 2018. But there are more people in prison worthy of a second chance, and their lives and liberty depend on the governor.
A sentence that might have seemed fair and sensible when it was imposed might become irrational and unnecessary to keep the public safe years later. Some sentences were never fair to begin with, including many of the mandatory minimum sentences Northam has criticized but that the state legislature failed to repeal this year.
Fixing some of Virginia’s most shameful past injustices is a necessary and admirable goal, but Northam should grasp the opportunity to shape the future by granting clemency to the living as well as the dead.
The writer is vice president of policy for FAMM, a nonpartisan, nonprofit sentencing and prison reform organization.