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Clemency is rare Kansas; advocates hope for change

June 29, 2021 GMT

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas trails most states in how frequently clemency is applied for and granted, but advocates are hoping that will change under Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.

The Topeka Capital-Journal reports that the eight she issued last week were the most in at least 15 years. Five were commutations, which reduce or eliminate a sentence altogether. The other three were pardons, which effectively wipe away a conviction, making it easier to do things like apply for professional licenses.

The situation is far different in other states: Oklahoma, for instance, has averaged more than 100 pardons every year for each of the past 15 years, according to the Restoration Rights Project, which tracks state-by-state approaches to clemency and other criminal justice policies.

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“The shift that I’m hopeful Governor Kelly’s decision ushers in for the state in how we think about these issues is to see the humanity of people who are incarcerated and recognize their work and their potential for a future,” said Sharon Brett, legal director for the ACLU of Kansas.

The organization ramped up clemency applications at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in a bid to reduce overcrowding and grant relief for inmates who were at risk for complications from the virus or had little time left on their sentence.

Among those granted clemency was Joseph Jones, who got help from the ACLU. Arrested at 21 for a fight he didn’t instigate, he returned to prison for a low-level drug charge while on bond release and has been imprisoned since 2018. He is now two courses away from earning an online degree in business administration.

“I do believe there are people that deserve second chances,” said his mother, Kimberly Caldwell, who would like to see clemency embraced going forward.

Margaret Love, an attorney who handles federal clemency cases and manages the Restoration Rights Project database, noted that in Kansas, expungement laws — which allow those convicted of crimes to request that a conviction be hidden from their record — have historically been strong, leaving clemency only for gross miscarriages of justice.

“It’s a fact of his pardoning has not been a part of the culture in Kansas,” Love said. “Nobody pays much attention to it because they’ve got the expungement system.”

Also, the process of applying can be difficult, especially if a person is incarcerated.

“It’s been so rarely used, and the process is so unclear about who would actually be considered a decent candidate for clemency, that people probably threw their hands up and said, What’s the point?” Brett, of the ACLU, said.

Even with Kelly’s actions, more than 100 clemency applications remain on her desk — many of which are part of the ACLU’s efforts. Brett said she was under the impression last week’s actions were just the first phase, with more potentially to come as the governor’s office reviews the files in stages.

A spokesperson for Kelly said only that the governor will continue to review applications through the established process and “does not take using clemency power lightly.”