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Renewed focus on clemency as Gov Northam's term nears its end

The Governor's Mansion in Richmond, VA. Photographed on August 31, 2021
Jahd Khalil RadioIQ
The Governor's Mansion in Richmond, VA. Photographed on August 31, 2021

Those incarcerated in Virginia before 1995 typically only have one option to get out of jail early: the governor has to grant them clemency. As Governor Ralph Northam enters his last full month in office, his time to make those decisions is running out.

Clemency is a broad-term which generally refers to conditional pardons, which shortens an incarcerated person’s sentence without removing a conviction, simple pardons, which forgive previous convictions, and absolute pardons, which overturn a conviction.

Administration officials assert that their process hasn’t been geared towards only granting clemency in the last days of Northam’s term, pointing out that he has pardoned more people than the last nine administrations combined.

As of October, Northam reviewed about 2,000 cases and granted 604 pardons. Applications are coming in more frequently now that the governor’s term is coming to an end.

For the past several weeks, a small group of people has gathered near the Capitol Bell Tower on Tuesday afternoons.

They’re asking for a conditional pardon for Robert "Wize" Green.

“The mercy does not match the justice denied so we are pleading within proximity of the Governor’s mansion for the governor to amend this clemency and release Robert immediately,” said Madeline McClenney, the founder and president of Exodus Foundation.org, which provides mentorship for those impacted by the prison system.

Northam says his administration is working on the increasing stack of applications.

“There's certainly been a backlog. You know we've worked through that as efficiently as we can and as carefully as we can,” he said. “We have too much left. We're working diligently to get through the list and make sure those individuals that are eligible for parole or pardons that we will take care of that.”

With an incoming Republican administration that has criticized Virginia’s Parole Board, its unclear when the next good chance for those incarcerated to receive a pardon is.

“I can't really speak to the incoming administration, but I would speak to the emphasis that we put in on that with our administration. People mature and they learn,” Northam said. Throughout a controversy over the Parole Board, Northam’s administration characterized Republican attacks as seeking to undermine the institution of parole, which is extremely limited in Virginia.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Jahd Khalil is a reporter and producer in Richmond.
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