BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards commuted 36 prison sentences last year, allowing more people a chance at parole in 2020 than during his entire first four-year term in office.
The latest clemency actions were taken quietly. Edwards granted the awards throughout the year for the people who were convicted of violent crimes decades earlier and were deemed low risk to public safety.
By comparison, records show the Democratic governor, who has championed criminal justice reform, granted 34 sentence commutations from 2016 through 2019, The Advocate reports.
Among those who received a sentence commutation in 2020 was Duong “Calvin” Cao, who served more than two decades in prison on an attempted murder conviction. The clemency action shaved off about two years of his sentence.
Cao received a favorable recommendation for early release from Louisiana’s pardon board in 2015 during former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s tenure because officials considered him rehabilitated. But Jindal granted just three commutations during his eight years in office.
Since then, Cao worked in the governor’s mansion and at State Police headquarters — both coveted jobs reserved for the most trusted inmates — before a positive coronavirus diagnosis. He recovered and was released from prison in September.
While grateful for his freedom, Cao is puzzled about the clemency process.
He said he understands the political risks associated with granting clemency, but “when month after month becomes year after year of waiting — when the governor could release you to your family with just the stroke of a pen, but he chooses not to — you start to lose hope.”
Almost no one who applies for a commutation actually gets one. But it’s the only possible relief mechanism for thousands of people serving life and other decades-long sentences in Louisiana, which holds the highest incarceration rate in the country.
Edwards has not explained his thought process or the factors he weighs most heavily in making clemency decisions.
The governor also granted 24 pardons in 2020. Those usually apply to people who have finished serving their sentences and have requested that the offense be removed from their records.
There are dozens more clemency applications still sitting on Edwards’ desk — and calls for him to step up his actions amid the risks of the coronavirus pandemic.
Clemency used to be much more common in Louisiana. Former Gov. Edwin Edwards signed 945 commutations during his first two terms starting in 1972, then another 335 during his third term from 1984 until 1988.
Advocates argue the commutation cases that make it past the pardon board have been thoroughly vetted by the expert panel, which collects records showing the inmate’s disciplinary history in prison, solicits statements from victims and uses algorithms to calculate their likelihood of committing another crime if released.
Kerry Myers, deputy director of the Louisiana Parole Project, cites research showing that people’s likelihood of getting rearrested decreases the older they get and the longer they spend behind bars.
“Punishment has diminishing returns when it ignores rehabilitation and risk — and the only remaining purpose is retribution,” he said. “That’s where the clemency process comes in.”