New Year’s pardons: A bipartisan and somewhat surprising record by governors in Illinois
It’s not simply the nation’s presidents and a few turkeys each Thanksgiving. Illinois governors on both sides of the aisle are known for giving holiday gifts of their own at year’s end. December and January are historically popular months to grant clemencies – sentence commutations as well as pardons, as evidenced by Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s granting of more than 11,000 pardons for low-level marijuana convictions in 2019. But a look through the office’s usage of the controversial and utterly unchecked power brings with it some surprises – moves that even in Illinois, have not been made simply for political gain. Here’s a look at some of them:
How it works:
Article V of the Illinois Constitution delegates sole clemency power to the governor, who can grant commutations or pardons to anyone, whether they have applied (or had someone apply on their behalf) to the Prisoner Review Board for a pardon or not. “The Governor may grant reprieves, commutations and pardons, after conviction, for all offenses on such terms as he thinks proper. The manner of applying therefore may be regulated by law,” the constitution states.
2003: 167 Death Row pardons by Ryan:
On Jan. 11, 2003, Republican Gov. George Ryan made the headline-making move to grant clemencies to 167 inmates on death row in Illinois, commuting all 167 sentences to life in prison terms. This was the single largest act of blanket clemency of death penalties in modern times, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. In 1999, the Center notes, the exoneration and release of Illinois death row prisoner Anthony Porter opened Ryan’s eyes to problems with capital punishment as administered in Illinois. Porter was exonerated for the 1982 murder of two teenagers on Chicago’s South Side, following an investigation by Northwestern University’s Innocence Project. In the wake of the Porter exoneration, Ryan established a special governor’s commission to study the state’s death penalty system and declared a moratorium on executions. “My concern basically was if I had left office and didn’t do anything about it and woke up one morning and found some innocent person had died, I would have to live with that the rest of my life,” Ryan told ABC7 Chicago.
1994: Women convicted of killing abusive partners pardoned by Edgar:
In 1994, Republican Gov. Jim Edgar moved to pardon four women who had been convicted of killing their abusive spouses. One of the women, Guinevere Garcia, who was convicted of shooting her husband during an argument, was pardoned just as she was about to be executed, on January 16, 1994.
Garcia had stated she was prepared to accept her fate, yet a number of activists waged a widespread campaign for her clemency, including Bianca Jagger. Edgar, who had never before overturned a death sentence, said Garcia's crime did not justify execution. "Horrible as was her crime, it is an offense comparable to those that judges and jurors have determined over and over again should not be punishable by death," Edgar said in a statement reported then by CNN.
December 1934: Horner pardons men convicted of armed robbery:
On Dec. 22, 1934, 28th Democratic Gov. Henry Horner conditionally pardoned nine Illinois prisoners in the Chester penitentiary and Pontiac reformatory. The men had been sentenced under an old state law which provided 10 years to life for armed robbery. According to the Associated Press at the time, “those convicted under the old law were required to remain in prison until their larger minimum was reached.”
December 2014: Quinn posthumously pardons Illinois abolitionists:
On New Year’s Eve 2014, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn posthumously pardoned three Illinois abolitionists who were found guilty of working on the Underground Railroad before the Civil War. Their pardons were among 102 New Year’s Eve clemencies granted by Quinn that year.
The three abolitionists were convicted of secreting and harboring fugitive slaves in 1843, acts prohibited by the Illinois Criminal Code. Although slavery was abolished in Illinois in 1824, harboring or assisting runaway slaves remained illegal under Illinois and federal law. The petitions were prepared by the office of Lieutenant Governor Sheila Simon’s office as part of a special project by legal interns.
December 2019: Pritzker pardons 11,000 for marijuana convictions:
Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker granted more than 11,000 pardons for low-level marijuana convictions in 2019, a move that was referred to as a first wave of expected expungements as the state moved to legalize marijuana. By the end of 2020, Pritzker announced that the number had grown to 500,000.
Illinois’ top issues
The Center for Illinois Politics is dedicated to providing you with clear, fact-based, non-partisan information on our state’s biggest issues.
IL Campaign Cash
Take a streamlined spin behind the scenes through Illinois’ biggest and most impactful campaign funds.
Illinois’ top issues
With elections behind us, it’s time to get down to business. The Center for Illinois Politics your resource for non-partisan information on our state’s biggest issues: