Discretionary Justice

Pardon and Parole in New York from the Revolution to the Depression

336 pages

9 halftones

December, 2016

ISBN: 9781479899920



Add to Cart Available: 11/18/2016

Also available in




Carolyn Strange is a Senior Fellow at the Australian National University. She has published extensively in the fields of criminal justice history and the history of gender and sexuality. A specialist in modern North American history, her work, spanning the fields of history, criminology, law, and gender studies, has appeared in leading journals in the U.S. Canada, Britain and Australia. She has published and edited eight books

All books by Carolyn Strange

The pardon is an act of mercy, tied to the divine right of kings. Why did New York retain this mode of discretionary justice after the Revolution? And how did governors’ use of this prerogative change with the advent of the penitentiary and the introduction of parole? This book answers these questions by mining previously unexplored evidence held in official pardon registers, clemency files, prisoner aid association reports and parole records. 

This is the first book to analyze the histories of mercy and parole through the same lens, as related but distinct forms of discretionary decision-making. It draws on governors’ public papers and private correspondence to probe their approach to clemency, and it uses qualitative and quantitative methods to profile petitions for mercy, highlighting controversial cases that stirred public debate. Political pressure to render the use of discretion more certain and less personal grew stronger over the nineteenth century, peaking during constitutional conventionsand reaching its height in the Progressive Era. Yet, New York’s legislators left the power to pardon in the governor’s hands, where it remains today. 

Unlike previous works that portray parole as the successor to the pardon, this book shows that reliance upon and faith in discretion has proven remarkably resilient, even in the state that led the world toward penal modernity.


  • Discretionary Justice is an engrossing book. All academic libraries in New York should have a copy of this book, and academic libraries in other states with patrons interested in the history of criminal justice should consider having a copy as well.”

    Law Library Journal

  • This book offers a wonderful history of pardon and parole and, at the same time, a sophisticated analysis of discretionary justice. I know of no other book like it. Focusing on the state of New York, it is a pleasure to read. Scholars interested in understanding the complexities of pardon and parole and the rise of the administrative state will find this book to be an invaluable resource.

    —Austin Sarat, Amherst College

  • For good reason, issues of criminal law and criminal justice in the United States recently have become a subject of both popular and academic interest. While scholars of law and history have done much to explore the problems and perspectives in the past that have helped give rise to the workings of criminal justice in the present, much more needs to be done, particularly in the less familiar areas of criminal law, like pardon and parole. This book offers a welcome exploration of how and why New York state handled those less visible aspects of criminal law up through the first decades of the twentieth century. In the process of unpacking New York’s pardon and parole systems, it helps us understand the nature of discretionary justice and the ways in which law and politics could and did intersect. 

    —Elizabeth Dale, Professor, Department of History & Levin College of Law, University of Florida

  • Exploiting a wide range of new sources, this original and innovative book illuminates the importance of the criminal law to race, gender, and social and political power in America from an entirely new perspective. It puts the spotlight on prison reform and capital punishment at the state level in the most important jurisdiction in the country. An invaluable contribution to understanding the complex history of criminal law and punishment over 150 years.

    —Douglas C. Hay, Professor Emeritus, York University