The state of Alaska has unveiled new procedures for convicted criminals to apply for pardons and other forms of clemency, but the final decision will remain where it always has been: in the hands of the governor.
No one has received a gubernatorial pardon in Alaska since 2006, and the new process doesn’t guarantee anyone will, but it remains a big step for the state.
“Based on the detail in which the process has been built, it could maybe raise (the governor’s) comfort level enough to enact the program,” said Jeffrey Edwards, director of the Alaska Parole Board.
“That’s good to hear,” said Wayne Anthony Ross, an Anchorage attorney who has been working on more than a dozen clemency requests for years.
“A lot of people have been waiting many years, behaving themselves, and they need action,” he said.
Until Wednesday, the state’s clemency procedure was simple, straightforward, and didn’t work.
Convicts seeking a pardon, commutation (sentence reduction), reprieve (delayed punishment) or remission of fines (canceling financial penalties) had to complete and submit a one-page form to the Alaska Parole Board.
The board reviewed the applications and forwarded those it deemed complete to the governor’s office.
In August, a scathing report from the state ombudsman determined the state “acted contrary to law” by collecting clemency applications and sitting on them. Since 2009, the process has been stalled, pending revision.
“The Ombudsman found that the Parole Board’s actions (or inactions) interfered with applicants’ rights to due process of law,” the report concluded.
In October, Gov. Bill Walker included clemency reforms within a new statewide public safety plan.
In December, the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission backed Walker’s decision by passing a resolution urging the governor to restart the clemency process “and address the backlog of clemency applications.”
A representative of the Alaska Department of Law and a representative of the governor’s office told the Empire that the new clemency process has been in the works for several months.
Under the system, petitioners must fill out a far longer form and supplement it with additional information about themselves, their crime, and how they’ve reformed since their sentencing.
That application goes to the parole board, which filters incomplete or ineligible applications, then forwards the remainder to the governor’s office. The governor can reject the application at this point or request further investigation from the parole board.
If the governor requests additional investigation, that starts a 120-day clock for the board to finish its work. The board is required to notify any victim involved, and the victim will be allowed to make a statement. At the end of the 120-day investigation, the parole board forwards the results to the governor’s office. The governor can reject the application at that point, but if he decides to proceed, the application goes to a three-person advisory committee that includes a member of the public, the Attorney General, and the lieutenant governor.
That committee recommends whether to reject or accept the application, then sends that recommendation to the governor. The governor checks for conflicts of interest, then makes a final decision. A clemency decision by the governor cannot be appealed or reversed.
The state’s clemency process has been almost nonexistent since 2007, when the Alaska Legislature passed new rules that placed a timeline on the pardon process and required crime victims to be informed if a decision affected them.
Before 2007, pardons were rare, but they did happen. The Alaska Constitution reserves pardon power for the governor, and Alaska’s first state governor, Bill Egan, was not shy about exercising that power. Between 1959 and 1966, he pardoned 86 Alaskans — most on or around Christmas each year — according to records provided to the Legislature in 2007.
After Egan, pardons became much less common. Tony Knowles pardoned only two Alaskans. Murkowski pardoned six, almost all in the final days of his time as governor. Governors Sarah Palin and Sean Parnell issued no pardons.
Gov. Bill Walker has not issued any pardons, but he has considered issuing them for the Fairbanks Four.
It was Murkowski’s controversial pardon of Whitewater Engineering for criminally negligent homicide that stalled the pardon process in Alaska. Gary Stone, an equipment operator for the company, was killed in a 1999 avalanche, and Murkowski pardoned the company after efforts by Wrangell legislator Robin Taylor and Juneau legislator Bruce Weyhrauch.
Stone’s family was not informed before the pardon, and in response to public outcry over the pardon, the Alaska Legislature passed (and Gov. Sarah Palin signed) legislation regulating the pardon power of the governor. It was the first bill approved by Palin.
Since the 2007 bill passed, the state has received 364 applications for clemency. The parole board has rejected 90 of those on various grounds; those who have filed the remaining 274 are being told to resubmit their requests under the new program.
The Empire has filed an information act request for the names of applicants but has not yet received the results of that request.
Edwards said the parole board will be busy this week informing prior applicants.
“I’m excited for it. I think Alaskans should be excited,” he said. “It’s an avenue for adult Alaskans that have gone through considerable efforts to turn their lives around.”
• Contact reporter James Brooks at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 523-2258.