Last October, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed an executive order granting clemency to 73 people who had committed crimes as juveniles, clearing a path for them to apply for parole. It was the high point in what The Guardian calls a "remarkable arc." As Brown approaches the end of her second term, she has granted commutations or pardons to 1,147 people – more than all of Oregon’s governors from the last 50 years combined. The story illustrates the pressure the COVID-19 pandemic put on the prison system and growing momentum for criminal justice reform. It also shows a governor’s personal convictions and how she came to embrace clemency as a tool for criminal justice reform, expressing the belief that compassionate mercy and ensuring public safety are not mutually exclusive.
“If you are confident that you can keep people safe, you’ve given victims the opportunity to have their voices heard and made sure their concerns are addressed, and individuals have gone through an extensive amount of rehabilitation and shown accountability, what is the point of continuing to incarcerate someone, other than retribution?” Brown said. When Brown, a Democrat, became governor in 2015, she had the power of executive clemency – an umbrella term referring to the ability of governors and the president to grant mercy to criminal defendants. Clemency includes pardons, which forgive someone who has committed a crime; commutations, which change prison sentences, often resulting in early release; reprieves, which pause punishment; and eliminating court-related fines and fees. In the pandemic's early months, Brown was one of 18 governors who used clemency to reduce prison populations in the hopes of curbing virus transmission. . She approved the early release of 963 people who had committed nonviolent crimes and met six additional criteria.