Illinois Governor Sued Over Clemency Requests

A group of convicted felons is suing Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, demanding prompt action on pardon requests. Critics say the state takes too long to give applicants a yes or no decision.

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Some convicted felons say they've been punished long enough, and in Illinois, they're filing suit to force a decision that could change their lives. What they want is a pardon from the governor. That would give them a clean record, make it easier for them to get jobs. It would give them a fresh start. They're suing because they say it's taking years to get a yes or no on their clemency requests. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY: The dozen people who sued to clear their names were convicted or found guilty of crimes such as aggravated battery or possession with intent to distribute cannabis years ago. It was in the 1970s, for example, that now 60-year-old Percy Mack(ph) got into trouble.

Mr. PERCY MACK (Convicted Felon, Illinois): I got myself into a situation with a stolen car. I didn't steal it, but I was guilty by possession. I also dated a young lady that lied about her age, and they called it contributing to the delinquency of a minor. I've been trying to clean up those mistakes for years.

CORLEY: Mack was sentenced to probation for each of his convictions, and he changed his life, raising a daughter on his own, attending college courses and working as a boxing coach at the Chicago Park District. But he lost that job in the late 1990s. He did odd jobs, relied on public aid to get by and still worked with boxers on a volunteer basis.

He applied again to the park district, but his convictions, 30 years earlier, came back to haunt him during a background check. So five years ago, Mack requested clemency, hoping Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich would grant him a pardon. So far, he hasn't heard back.

Mr. MACK: I'm really shocked at the governor. The people who deserve their clemency, their cases should be examined to see if they're worthy of that. But if you're sitting in limbo, the governor's actually got a noose around our necks. We have no bars in front of us, but we're still imprisoned.

CORLEY: There have been 3,000 requests for clemency filed during the Blagojevich administration, but he's just granted 89 pardons, and decisions on nearly 2,000 cases are pending. The governor's office did not return NPR phone calls seeking comment, but Jorge Montes, the head of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, says the backlog may be due, in part, to a spiraling increase in clemency requests - about 800 to 900 a year. Montes says the review board meets quarterly and sends non-binding recommendations to the governor, who offers pardons at his discretion.

Mr. JORGE MONTES (Head, Illinois Prisoner Review Board): This is the highest form of relief that an individual can receive, so these are highly vetted, and they go through another sift, if you will, with the governor's legal staff. So they meticulously review case by case, and that's a time-consuming process.

CORLEY: But Robert Acton, the head of the Cabrini Green Legal Aid Clinic, is not content with that explanation. The agency has represented more than 200 people before the Prisoner Review Board and is also behind the lawsuit seeking that clemency decisions be made in a reasonable period of time.

Mr. ROBERT ACTON (Cabrini Green Legal Aid Clinic): And we think a reasonable time frame looks something like six months - from the point that the petition lands on the governor's desk, to give his staff the time to look through the petitions, review the recommendation of the Prisoner Review Board, and come to a conclusion on whether to grant or deny.

Ms. MARGARET LOVE (Attorney): I have never seen another situation like the Illinois situation.

CORLEY: That's Margaret Love, an attorney who specializes in executive clemency, who was also the U.S. Justice Department's pardon attorney for years. Love says there may be places in the country where the clemency process takes just as long, but she believes the length of time and the volume of cases in Illinois is unusual. Love says chief executives used to view the pardoning process as a regular part of their jobs, but governors are increasingly sensitive about looking soft on crime.

Ms. LOVE: Pardoning is not something that you get an awful lot of credit for, so why do it? And particularly if you don't see it as a part of your job, and nobody's kind of encouraging you to see it as part of your job.

CORLEY: Earlier this month, Illinois Governor Blagojevich did grant 19 pardons. That leaves more than 1,900 requests for clemency to be decided. Meantime, the governor's office is appealing the ruling, which allowed the lawsuit to go forward. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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