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Quinn must act on clemency petitions

Updated: November 11, 2011 12:52PM



On Sept. 30, 2010, on the eve of the gubernatorial election, in a room filled with 1,300 legal aid lawyers and other potential voters, Gov. Pat Quinn made an unequivocal promise to decide all 3,000 pending petitions for clemency by year’s end.

“We’re gonna finish all of the petitions by the end of the year,” he said, “make sure that everybody gets a fair shake.” Those in attendance, ourselves included, applauded the governor’s statement.

A month later, Quinn won the election, but now — a year later — his promise remains unfulfilled. Since that time, Quinn has decided 761 clemency petitions, less than 25 percent of those originally pending. In the meantime, another 700 petitions have been filed, so, in effect, no real progress has been made.

While Quinn should be given credit for his recent actions to move the clemency ball forward following the dilatory actions of his predecessor, his efforts are insufficient, and many petitioners’ lives remain in limbo.

Most of the public associates the governor’s clemency power with Death Row inmates, but many clemency petitioners are individuals who committed far less serious offenses. Furthermore, by the time a petition for clemency — an official form of forgiveness — reaches the governor’s desk, the vetting process is nearly complete. The petitioner has filed a detailed submission; the prosecuting state’s attorney has been given an opportunity to object; a public hearing has been conducted before the governor’s Prison Review Board, and that board has made a confidential recommendation to the governor.

In the interest of full disclosure, we must tell you that we are not passive viewers of the clemency process. In the last three years, we have been proud to represent a number of clemency petitioners on a pro bono basis. One of our clients, Samina Slater-Brown, is haunted by a single conviction for aggravated battery, stemming from an altercation that happened over 40 years ago.

She accepted responsibility for her actions, was sentenced to probation, paid her debt to society and went on to pursue a modest living. In 2008, after Slater-Brown was denied a school lunch aide position because of the 40-year-old criminal conviction, she came to us and we helped her file her petition.

Three years later, she waits for the governor’s decision, though she has already demonstrated for 40 years that she deserves a second chance.

Another client, Johnny Patton, pleaded guilty to one count of burglary in 1979 when he was just 19. Patton, with some friends, was caught breaking into a neighbor’s back porch. He served two years’ probation and went on to become a bus driver. Yet he cannot get a better-paying job with the CTA because of the conviction. Patton filed a clemency petition in 2009, unopposed by the prosecutor, but still awaits an answer.

We fully acknowledge that the governor’s clemency power must be exercised thoughtfully. That said, more progress has to be made by the governor’s office to decide the pending petitions. Almost a year ago, we were part of a delegation that recommended to the governor’s office that it tap into the network of large law firms that could provide pro bono legal resources to help the governor review the petitions. To the best of our knowledge, his office has made no effort to pursue this idea or otherwise accelerate the process to fulfill his unequivocal promise.

Gov. Quinn owes it to Samina Slater-Brown and Johnny Patton — and thousands of other folks — to make good on his promise and decide their clemency petitions, one way or another, in a timely manner. Too many lives are unnecessarily on hold.

Former federal prosecutor Patrick Collins, Jade Lambert and Brandy McMillion are attorneys in private practice in Chicago.



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