ACLU and Princeton Hold Forum Highlighting Role Of Clemency in Reducing Mass Incarceration

Forum Tackles How Clemency Can be Used to Correct Past Injustices in the Criminal Legal System

December 1, 2022 7:45 pm

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PRINCETON, N.J.Today, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) hosted a forum in partnership with the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, convening a group of public officials, issue experts, and formerly incarcerated individuals to have a critical — and long overdue — conversation about clemency and how it can address unfairness in the justice system and reduce mass incarceration. The forum, Correcting Injustice: How Clemency Serves Justice and Strengthens Communities, evaluates ongoing work to reduce mass incarceration, how clemency has been used in the past by governors and presidents, what the impact of re-entry has been on people and communities, and how it should be utilized moving forward.

The forum comes on the heels of clemency actions by President Joe Biden and Oregon Governor Kate Brown, who both categorically pardoned people with convictions for marijuana possession.

At the forum, the ACLU also announced the creation of the Lewis Conway Jr. Leadership in Clemency Award in honor of Lewis Conway, an ACLU employee who passed away earlier this year. Conway was an integral leader in the launch of The Redemption Campaign, a first of its kind effort to release 50,000 people from state and federal prisons by encouraging officials to use their clemency powers in new and transformational ways. Prior to joining the ACLU, Lewis served 2,095 days in prison in Texas. After his release, he found purpose and strength advocating for incarcerated people with his historic run for office in Austin, Texas. At the ACLU, he harnessed a particular skill for storytelling and campaign strategy, empowering others to tell their stories of the harms of mass incarceration and the hope he found in second chances.

“Our criminal legal system is simply not working,” said Cynthia Roseberry, Acting Director of the ACLU’s Justice Division. “We’ve seen great progress in clemency in recent weeks. Thanks to President Biden and Governor Brown, thousands of people have received marijuana-related pardons, and this conversation demonstrates the need for more. Too many people are in prison unnecessarily and too many people have been left behind bars as laws change. People are not disposable. Clemency provides an opportunity to embrace redemption instead of retribution.”

The forum brought together Governor Kate Brown of Oregon, Michael Thompson, a formerly-incarcerated advocate and founder of the Michael Thompson Clemency Project, and New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin to speak about their respective experiences with clemency, criminal legal reform, and mass incarceration. Thompson and Brown also received the inaugural 2022 Lewis Conway Jr. Leadership In Clemency Award during the event.

“We are a nation that believes in second chances. While people convicted of crime need to be held accountable for their actions, nobody deserves to be solely judged on the worst act of their life,” said Governor Kate Brown. “The one-size-fits-all approach that mass incarceration relies on is rooted in racism — and as a country we must rethink this approach. Clemency is a powerful tool that can help right the wrongs we know exist in our criminal legal system, while also providing us with an avenue to begin eradicating the racism upon which our criminal justice system was built.”

“By bringing together people who have first-hand experience with government officials who hold the executive power to use clemency, we hope to initiate a critical dialogue and encourage policymakers nationwide to employ clemency as the valuable tool it was designed to be,” said Udi Ofer, John L. Weinberg Visiting Professor and Lecturer of Public and International Affairs at Princeton School of Public and International Affairs who moderated the event. “Our nation has a long bipartisan history of governors and presidents using clemency as a tool to correct past injustices, from President George Washington pardoning participants in the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion and President Gerald Ford pardoning thousands of people who deserted or evaded the Vietnam War, to Republican Oklahoma governor Kevin Stitt commuting the sentences of 527 people incarcerated for drug possession. It is time we have a candid conversation about clemency, what it means, and how it can help correct the injustices in our existing prison system.”

“The Murphy Administration is striving to build a better future – one that truly promotes justice for all New Jerseyans,” said Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin. “I applaud the ACLU and Princeton University for hosting today’s forum, and demonstrating their commitment to these issues. My office is working every day to implement reforms and initiatives aimed at reducing unnecessary system involvement while prioritizing public safety.”

Princeton University has long had student groups working to push for meaningful and necessary criminal legal reform and education. Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR) works to advocate for common sense criminal justice reform. Additionally, the university’s Prison Teaching Initiative works to provide post-secondary education to incarcerated students in New Jersey and to foster robust campus dialogue on mass incarceration and its relationship to systematic inequalities in access to education.

“When we talk about clemency, we’re talking about giving hope to people who feel there is nothing they can do,” said Michael Thompson. “These sentences that are stacked and trap people need to be seriously re-evaluated. I would still be in prison if it wasn’t for people fighting for me, and fighting to fix a system that is broken. Anyone that has a conscience and a heart knows how important this issue is.”

To learn more about the ACLU’s Redemption Campaign, visit the ACLU’s website.

A recording of the event may be viewed here:

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