Arizona Lawmakers Move to Strip Governor Jan Brewer of Commutation Power

A group of state representatives has introduced a bill that would strip the governor of the power to commute prison sentences and hand it over to the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency.

The legislation, formally titled HCR 2025: the Arizona Commutation Reform Act, is designed to ease over-crowding and save money -- not to mention, spare the governor political pressure.

Here's how the commutation process works today: the Board of Executive Clemency holds monthly parole hearings for inmates who have committed offenses prior to January 1994, as well as clemency hearings -- including commutation and pardons. After two years in prison, inmates can apply to the board, which weeds out cases in two hearing phases then makes a written recommendation to the governor. The governor then decides whether to sign off on their commutation.

The problem, according to the Arizona Committee for Commutation Reform, is that tough-talking politicians -- like Jan Brewer -- don't have the stones to release an inmate for fear of a political backlash.

The BOEC estimates that 84 percent of cases recommended to the governor are rejected each year. According to a press release from the Arizona Committee for Commutation Reform, only 53 cases out of 340 total have been approved by the governor over the last six years. This has cost the state $25.7 million dollars in revenue to house prisoners towards whom the board has recommended leniency.

The BOEC press release goes on to say "once the Governor-appointed BOEC approves an inmate for a commutation of sentence, the process then moves on to the Governor's office where the decision becomes a political one -- the decision for the sake of all parties involved should rest on the individual case alone and not the political pressures inherent with an elected official."

The legislation comes in the wake of a controversy over the governor's refusal to commute a man's sentence despite the board's unanimous recommendation that he be released from prison.

William Macumber (pictured above) is the first man in Arizona history to be unanimously recommended for clemency by the board without a DNA exoneration. Macumber first applied for clemency December 15, 2008. On August 25, 2009 the board unanimously recommended in a letter to the governor that he be released, partly because of his "extraordinary accomplishments" in prison but also because of the "substantial doubt that Mr. Macumber is guilty of the crime for which he was convicted."

That "substantial doubt" stems from the fact that his wife, who worked in the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office at the time of the murders, reported to her supervisors that he had "confessed" the crime to her -- a claim she made while they were going through a nasty divorce. Her son now believes that his mother framed his father, and so, apparently, does the parole board.

But Brewer didn't see it that way. In November 2009, she denied him clemency, but declined to elaborate.

Last October, Macumber's son, Ronald Kempfert, showed up at one of Brewer's press conferences and asked her to explain why she denied his father clemency. Brewer called it an "unfortunate situation," said she appreciated his "concerns," but had made her decision and it was "final." She abruptly ended her press conference.

Politicians are notoriously afraid to grant clemency or pardons lest the released prisoner commit a crime afterward, like Michael Dukakis and Mike Huckabee have learned -- the hard way. This bill would take that responsibility out of the governor's hands and place them into the board's, whose members are appointed by the governor to seek justice and reward reform, which the governor isn't always able or willing to do.

The bill was introduced by Reps. Cecil Ash, Daniel Patterson, Tom Chabin, Brenda Barton, Eric Meyer, Kate Brophy McGee, Richard Miranda, Peggy Judd, David Burnell Smith, and Catherine Miranda, as well as Sen. Ron Gould.

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