The Commutation Process for Women Prisoners

At the end of 2010, the Michigan Women’s Justice & Clemency Project, a grassroots effort based at the University of Michigan, celebrated four clemencies granted by Governor Granholm to women serving nonparolable life sentences, and paroles for two women serving parolable life.  The six women were convicted as aiders and abettors to murder; five of them in connection with the deaths of their abusers, and one for a murder committed by her abuser.  The Project prepared clemency applications and representatives testified at public hearings for all six women.

 Our celebrations for the women who were released were not without tinges of irony and disappointment at a lost opportunity for justice, however, since hundreds of other women who also petitioned for and deserved clemency – a number of them supported by the Clemency Project --- remain incarcerated for crimes committed in self-defense or under duress and threats of violence to themselves or others.

 In her final term in office, from January 2007 to December 2010, Governor Granholm granted a total of 28 clemencies (commutations and pardons) to women prisoners.  One Hundred and Seventy Five were granted to both men and women during that period, a number that was both criticized and celebrated in the media for being greater than previous governors had granted.  However, the pattern of clemencies granted to women was both highly selective and politically cautious.  Other than those granted for terminal medical conditions (5), excessive drug  sentences (6), or  erasure  of probation  offenses  (7),  only 10 were granted  for women  convicted of serious crimes, and all but one of those were aiders and abettors to the crime.  The exception was a woman whose conviction had been previously overturned by a federal court, but then was re---instated on prosecutorial appeal.  Her petition for clemency, and one other successful woman’s petition, were submitted and supported by the University of Michigan Law School.

 During the same period, the parole board released only five women who were serving parolable life, two of whom were represented by the Clemency Project.  All of these women were also aiders and abettors.

 All together, 51 public hearings were held for women: 27 for women serving life or long sentences for murder or other serious crimes; 9 for medical cases; 7 drug cases; 8 probation offenses.  One or both of us attended 11 of the 27 hearings held for women who were serving life or long sentences.  The hearings them-selves presented enormous obstacles for incarcerated women to overcome.  First, they were predicated on a gendered model of criminal processing as well as a male model of violent offending. Research has shown that women’s participation in violent crime is often coerced or responding to abuse; that the relationship between victimization and offending is more closely linked in women’s lives than in men’s; and that women have better responses to community treatment and lower rates of recidivism than men (see  Bloom et al, U.S. 2 Justice Department 2003), yet this  kind  of  information was  ignored in favor of the state’s constructions of the women as dangerous and “patho-logical” persons.  Second, histories of abuse, and other contextual issues relevant to the women’s lawbreaking, particularly  in  cases of aiding and  abetting male co-defendants, were treated as excuses and in some cases with outright mockery by the assistant attorney general, Charles Schettler, who conducted  most of the hearings.  Questions such as why didn’t she run away from her abuser, why didn’t her family call police, why, if she was so abused, shouldn’t she  be considered a “monster,” like psychopathic lesbian killer Aileen Wuornos, and other bullying questions that betrayed bias or ignorance of survivors’ responses to domestic violence were common.

 The hearings themselves established an antagonistic environment that reflected the systematic patterns of inequity that are prevalent throughout the criminal processing of women, especially women of color.  White women represent 52% of the total prison population according to MDOC statistics, yet 75% of the commutations went to White women; 84% of the pardons went to White women; four of the five paroles to parolable lifers went to White women.  The relatively small number of hearings that were held for women excluded far too many who deserved an opportunity for relief.  Those who did receive public hearings for possible commutation or parole were denied fair and impartial reviews that are a constitutional mandate for this last redress of justice.

 California has had success with a change in their habeas law allowing women whose criminal convictions were linked to their abuse to apply for paroles.  At least 19 women have been released since 2002, thanks to the change.  New York is considering a bill that will mitigate sentences for battered women who act against their abusers or are coerced into committing other crimes.  Michigan needs to make changes in criminal processing at all levels to reflect women’s experiences, particularly as they reflect women’s responses to violence and acts of survival.

by Carol Jacobsen and Lynn D’Orio

 Carol Jacobsen serves as Director, and Lynn D’Orio as Legal Director, of the Michigan Women’s Justice & Clemency Project, a grassroots, nonprofit effort founded by Susan Fair, and based at the University of Michigan. The Project works to free women prisoners wrongly convicted of murder who acted in self-defense against their batterers, and to conduct public education and advocacy for women’s human rights and humane alternatives to incarceration.  Contact Ms. Jacobsen at;  See