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January 19, 2017

Prez Obama wraps up his clemency work with 330 more commutations on his final full day in office

As reported here via USA Today, "President Obama commuted the sentences of 330 more federal inmates Thursday, capping an unprecedented clemency effort that has now released 1,715 prisoners — more than any other president in history."  Here is more:

The clemency grants announced on Obama's last full day in office set a one-day record. "Proud to make this one of my final actions as President.  America is a nation of second chances, and 1,715 people deserved that shot," Obama tweeted Thursday.

The clemency initiative, which began in 2014, was targeted at drug dealers who received mandatory-minimum sentences during the War on Drugs from the 1980s to the 2000s. But the effort ultimately fell far short of the 10,000 clemency grants former attorney general Eric Holder predicted when the initiative began. And while Obama set a record for granting commutations, he also set a record for denials.  As of the end of 2016, he had denied 14,485 petitions and closed another 4,242 without action — an overall grant rate of 5.9%, a couple of percentage points higher than many of his predecessors.

"The president set out to reinvigorate clemency, and he has done just that," White House counsel Neil Eggleston said in a statement.

It's unclear how big of a backlog in clemency cases President-elect Donald Trump will inherit.  But Justice Department officials had promised to give an up-or-down determination on every clemency initiative case it received by August.  “I’m proud to say we kept that promise," Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates said in a statement. "This undertaking was as enormous as it was unprecedented, and I am incredibly grateful to the teams of people who devoted their time and energy to the project since its inception."

Obama's final list of clemency grants included no more full pardons, meaning his final pardon tally will stand at 212 — fewer than any modern president except Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. (It was the younger Bush who gave Obama this advice in the limo ride to the Capitol on his Inauguration Day eight years ago. "Announce a pardon policy early on, and stick to it.")

The grants on Thursday also did not include any of the more high-profile political cases, like former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, and former congressman Chaka Fattah, all serving time on corruption charges.

With Thursday's action, the Clemency Project 2014 also closes its doors.  The coalition of defense attorneys who had agreed to help inmates with their cases says it completed work on all the applications it received. "Of course we'd be delighted to continue, but we have to wait to see whether the next president says whether he will or will not pursue this," he said.

This NBC News coverage of the final grants and the recent history of Obama's clemency initiative closes with a useful account of its ups and downs:

Obama's clemency grants came in large batches, hundreds at a time, accompanied by statements that framed his effort as a bid to become the most merciful president of all time. But his denials were even more voluminous. The effect on applicants and their lawyers was like an emotional roller coaster.

On Wednesday, sandwiched between Obama's two ballyhooed clemency announcements, the Justice Department quietly released the names of more than 2,000 applicants who'd been denied.

James Felman, a Florida defense lawyer who represents dozens of inmates who applied for clemency, celebrated Tuesday when he learned that four had received commutations. On Wednesday, he learned that a dozen others had been denied, and he mourned. On Thursday, Felman was elated again, this time for four more clients who were on Obama's list. A dozen of Felman's clients still have heard nothing. Three are serving life sentences.

And then there's the matter of reform. Advocates point out that clemency does nothing to change policies that led to mass incarceration. Efforts to ease those laws beyond the 2010 changes have stalled in Congress.

Felman, who won commutation for 44 total clients, called Obama's initiative "the single most gratifying professional experience I've ever undertaken." He added: "I have so much gratitude for the president for having the courage and fortitude for doing this. But we know this is not a substitute for reforming the laws that got us here, and we still haven't accomplished that."

January 19, 2017 at 05:49 PM | Permalink


The Great Emancipator II

Posted by: anon | Jan 19, 2017 6:58:40 PM

"Justice, justice, shall you pursue." Deuteronomy 16:20

Posted by: anon4 | Jan 19, 2017 10:01:23 PM

What doth the Lord require of thee? Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God.

Micah 6:8

Posted by: Emily | Jan 19, 2017 10:10:53 PM

Es lebe die Freiheit; es lebe der Wein!

Posted by: German onlooker | Jan 19, 2017 10:12:56 PM

As for President Obama, “He was a man, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.”

Posted by: Shakespeare | Jan 19, 2017 10:15:51 PM

Poor student, but apropos of Obama, I do remember this from Twelfth Night:

"Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them."

Posted by: C- in Shakespeare course | Jan 19, 2017 10:21:19 PM

In February, 2016, columnist David Brooks wrote: "Obama radiates an ethos of integrity, humanity, good manners and elegance that I’m beginning to miss, and that I suspect we will all miss a bit, regardless of who replaces him."

How true, how true.

Posted by: Moderate Republican | Jan 19, 2017 10:28:13 PM

Moderate Republican, I concur. How true how true, particulary when in place of Obama, a man "who radiates an ethos of integrity, humanity, good manners and elegance," we substitute Trump, a man who radiates vindictiveness, dishonesty, impulsivity, crassness, misogyny, sexual perversity, and narcissism.

Posted by: anon7 | Jan 19, 2017 11:08:07 PM

How much more worrisome for the future of this great experiment that a plurality of our fellow citizens could be swayed to vote for "a man who radiates vindictiveness, dishonesty, impulsivity, crassness, misogyny, sexual perversity, and narcissism. One cannot fear but this is a repackaging of the circus. I personally fear that George Santayana is right. For how many amongst the party faithful recall the Roman Republic's slide into Empire?

Posted by: MarK M. | Jan 20, 2017 4:10:19 AM

The hero worship here is truly a spectacle.

For the sake of the prisoners receiving mercy and society, I hope they live productive, law-abiding lives.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 20, 2017 9:18:44 AM

Federalist writes, "For the sake of the prisoners receiving mercy and society, I hope they live productive, law-abiding lives." And I say, Amen, Amen.

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | Jan 20, 2017 9:47:10 AM

A bit of Shakespeare:


Posted by: Joe | Jan 20, 2017 9:49:41 AM

To put things in perspective, President Obama denied more clemency petitions than any president in history. There were over 14,000 denials before the 2,500 more were announced on Jan. 18, 2017. That is over 16,000 denials. Over 4,000 petitions were closed without action and it appears that over 7,000 will roll over with no decision to the next administration.

The population of the BOP continued to climb until 2012 when we had more incarcerated people than any time in history. The administration stated that there could be 10,000 or more commutations. This created hope for relief for many thousands of nonviolent offenders with sentences that assure that they will die behind bars. They had been given hope for compassion and mercy, but did not win the lottery.

Posted by: beth | Jan 20, 2017 10:01:48 AM

Joe, nothing more fitting to Obama's actions than to reprint the Bard's sublime poetry:

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.

The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene I

Posted by: English major | Jan 20, 2017 10:23:17 AM

Kindness to the cruel is cruelty to the kind. Just sayin'.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 20, 2017 12:15:05 PM

Both on 2013 and 2014, Obama was described as more merciful to turkeys than humans.

OTOH, last-minute pardons are less polemical.

Posted by: visitor | Jan 21, 2017 4:52:05 AM

It will be interesting to do followup on these released individuals and see who reoffends, and to compare such commutations and pardons to past presidents' records.

Posted by: Eric Knight | Jan 23, 2017 12:34:20 PM

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