In this Friday, Nov. 15, 2019 file photo, Roger Stone exits federal court Washington. President Donald Trump on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020 issued pardons and sentence commutations for 29 people, including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Charles Kushner, the father of his son-in-law, in the latest burst of clemency in his final weeks at the White House. Also receiving a pardon is Roger Stone, another longtime Trump associate caught up in the probe of Russia and the Trump campaign. Credit: Julio Cortez / AP

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Dean A. Strang is a criminal defense lawyer in Wisconsin and a professor at Loyola University Chicago School of Law. This column was edited by the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.

Beyond fair argument, some of President Donald Trump’s pardons and commutations have been appalling: they are plain (even corrupt) transactional grants to loyalists or the politically connected.

Trump also has granted clemency for unrepented, brutal crimes, like Blackwater mercenaries murdering Iraqis and former Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher killing and photographing, as a trophy, a teenaged ISIS captive. That’s not really clemency, it’s complicity.

So most of Trump’s acts of clemency arguably have been cynical, petty and self-serving. According to Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith, at least 86 of Trump’s 94 grants of clemency have been to people connected to him, a subset of whom are actively covering for him. That’s nine out of 10.

But granting undue clemency is not the only abuse of that power: withholding due clemency is an abuse, too. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, at the end of November, denied release to Leslie Van Houten, who has spent 50 years in prison for her role in the infamous “Manson Family” murders at age 19. Even Newsom admitted she has been a model prisoner. Yet he claimed dishonestly that, at age 71, she remains a serious danger. Had the same crimes been less notorious and remembered, it’s almost impossible to imagine a remorseful, elderly woman remaining in prison after 50 years.

Trump practices crony clemency; Newsom, craven political ambition and cowardice in refusing clemency.

They’re not alone. In my home state of Wisconsin, police duped Brendan Dassey — a naive, confused and intellectually deficient teenager — into “confessing” to involvement in a murder for which he likely is innocent. Almost 15 years later, he sits in prison because courts failed and Wisconsin’s Democratic governor won’t even consider commutations. He alone could, but simply won’t. (With Jerry Buting, I represented his uncle, Steven Avery.)

In fact, most governors and presidents rarely use their clemency powers these days, compared to historical norms. Grants of commutation, pardon or amnesty fell precipitously beginning during the Carter administration. Former governors of California, Arkansas and Texas have been president since. They embraced “tough on crime” strategies that Republican and Democratic politicians continue to exploit.

There always have been abuses of clemency, like Clinton’s pardon of campaign donor Marc Rich and many of the pardons granted by Trump. But we can condemn any misuse of clemency without condemning clemency itself.

Clemency can cure obvious injustices and excesses that the judiciary has not. It can free the innocent when courts will not. It also can free the guilty who have made amends, accepted responsibility and punishment, and proven their humanity. It can reduce, although not eliminate, the nation’s grotesque racial and class disparities in criminal punishment.

We are a weaker, meaner, less majestic nation when clemency and the values that inspire it wither. Unvirtuous acts — the self-serving cheapness of Trump, Newsom and other politicians — do not make the virtue of clemency less valuable. Clemency still is a way of treating the powerless with compassion and dignity; of reminding us that punitive responses are not all we can offer each other. We need all of this now more than ever.