Monday, March 25, 2013

Barack the Unmerciful

Barack the Unmerciful:
Will Barack Obama go down in history as our least merciful
president? As he began his second term, this reputedly progressive
and enlightened man had a strong shot at winning that dubious
December, a traditional season for presidential clemency, came
and went, and still Obama had granted just one commutation (which
shortens a prisoner’s sentence) and 22 pardons (which clear
people’s records, typically after they’ve completed their
sentences). His first-term record looks weaker than those of all
but a few previous presidents.
Which of Obama’s predecessors managed to make less use of the
clemency power during their first terms? According to numbers
compiled by P.S. Ruckman Jr., a professor of political science at
Rock Valley College in Rockford, Illinois, just three: George
Washington, who probably did not have many clemency petitions to
address during the first few years of the nation’s existence;
William Henry Harrison, who died of pneumonia a month after taking
office; and James Garfield, who was shot four months into his
presidency and died that September.
With the exception of Washington’s first term, then, Obama so
far has been stingier with pardons and commutations than any other
president, especially when you take into account the growth of the
federal penal system during the last century, the elimination of
parole, the proliferation of mandatory minimums, and the
concomitant increase in petitions. This is a remarkable development
for a man who proclaims that “life is all about second chances” and
who has repeatedly described our criminal justice system as
excessively harsh.
As an Illinois state legislator in 2001, Obama declared,
“We can’t continue to incarcerate ourselves out of the drug
crisis.” As a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination
in 2007, he lamented that “we now have 2 million people
who are locked up…by far the largest prison population per capita
of any place on earth.” He worried that “there does seem to be a
racial component to some of the arrest, conviction, prosecution
rates when it comes to these [drug] offenses,” saying skewed
criminal penalties are “not a black or white issue” but “an
American issue,” since “our basic precept is equality under the
The following year, Obama told Rolling Stone that
making felons out of “nonviolent, first-time drug offenders” is
“counterproductive” and “doesn’t make sense.” Obama’s
campaign said he believes “we are sending far too
many first-time, nonviolent drug users to prison for very long
periods of time.” It promised he “will review drug
sentences to see where we can be smarter on crime and reduce the
blind and counterproductive sentencing of nonviolent
The one significant way in which Obama followed through on this
rhetoric after being elected was by supporting 2010 legislation
that shrank the irrational sentencing gap between crack cocaine and
cocaine powder (although there was not much political risk in doing
so, since the bill passed Congress almost unanimously). But the
Fair Sentencing Act did not apply retroactively, and Obama has used
commutation to help just one of the thousands of crack offenders
serving mandatory minimums that nearly everyone now admits are
More generally, Obama has granted clemency petitions at a lower
rate than all of his recent predecessors. The odds of winning a
pardon from Obama so far are 1 in 59, compared to 1 in 2 under
Richard Nixon, 1 in 3 under Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, 1 in 5
under Ronald Reagan, 1 in 10 under George H.W. Bush, 1 in 5 under
Bill Clinton, and 1 in 13 under George W. Bush, per Ruckman’s
calculations. The odds for commutation are even longer: 1 in 6,631
under Obama, compared to probabilities under the seven preceding
presidents ranging from 1 in 15 (Nixon) to 1 in 779 (Bush II).
Obama deserves credit for this amazing accomplishment: He has
made Richard Nixon look like a softie.