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October 6, 2011

"Why isn’t Mr. Obama exercising his pardon power?"

The title of this post is a question that regular readers know I have been asking for years.  It is also the headline of this Washington Post editorial, which includes these excerpts:

A report from the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General rightly takes the Obama administration to task for moving at a snail’s pace to answer the pleas of thousands of inmates seeking clemency or pardon.

The report notes that significant delays occur at virtually every step of the pardon process...  But the greatest share of the blame for the slow speed resides with the White House.  Mr. Obama did not issue a single pardon for nearly the first two years of his presidency.  Once Justice Department recommendations are forwarded to the White House, they languish an average of nine months before the president acts. The administration has recently made headway in reducing the backlog of cases — from 4,700 to 2,000 — but only because it denied thousands of petitions.

While more timely processing is needed, the real travesty involves the president’s miserly use of his pardon power.  Pardon is often an inmate’s last best chance for justice. It is meant to correct wrongs left unaddressed by the courts or legislature, and should be used wisely but unsparingly to give a second chance to those who have been wrongly convicted or sentenced to disproportionately and unjustifiably long prison terms.  

Mr. Obama has thus far extended mercy to a mere 17 individuals, most of whom committed relatively minor offenses decades ago....  

Mr. Obama need only look to the thousands of Americans — many of them young, African American men — incarcerated for inexcusably lengthy periods because of draconian crack cocaine laws.  Mr. Obama joined with a bipartisan coalition in Congress to reduce the penalties and make them more proportional to the crime.  Some inmates may benefit from a U.S. Sentencing Commission decision this summer that allows judges to resentence inmates under new guidelines reflecting the penalty reductions.  But many nonviolent offenders worthy of relief will be out of luck because they were sentenced to mandatory minimum prison terms.  This is exactly the kind of situation that cries out for presidential intervention.

Some recent and older related posts: 

October 6, 2011 at 11:02 AM | Permalink


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Umm, I am under the impression that pardon (especially federal pardon) is not generally seen as a proper route to correcting wrongful convictions. My understanding is that it carries the connotation that the criminal acts were in fact committed by the recipient, but that the president has determined that they should be excused.

Is this understanding wrong?

As for the question posed, I would say it's because there is no political upside to doing so and plenty of potential downside. And presidents and potential presidents received that message loud and clear with Bush Sr's bashing of Dukakis and even more so with the criticism leveled at Huckabee over his clemency practices. Perhaps if there were _any_ potential upside to liberal use of the clemency power you would see it exercised more often, but as it is there is simply no reason not to let it flounder.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Oct 6, 2011 11:35:13 AM

Of the many people that can be pardoned out there, there should be a few more pretty safe options that are not likely to open the can of worms that got Huckabee in trouble or Dukakis for that matter, nor provide the insider taint involved in a few notorious cases in recent years. If Republicans want to target him as soft on crime, a few more pardon cases -- including some people with sympathetic stories -- will be far down the list.

It's a low risk thing really. It's a shame he doesn't take advantage of the power he has here a bit more.

Posted by: Joe | Oct 6, 2011 6:26:11 PM

Gov. Ehrlich seemed to have a good pardon/clemency program. Why isn't that a model.

And Dukakis deserved every bit of the bashing he received.

Posted by: federalist | Oct 7, 2011 9:15:11 AM

Yes, it's Dukakis' fault that he continued policies put in place by his predecessors. Can we move past the '80s now?

Posted by: Joe | Oct 7, 2011 10:18:16 AM

The furlough program was an idea from his predecessors, yes, but extending it to men doing life and those convicted of murder was his doing.

Posted by: MikeinCT | Oct 7, 2011 10:34:46 AM

Short answer to the question in the headline: Because he's a coward. That's also the long answer.

FWIW, Rick Perry's clemency record sucks, too, but even so it compares quite favorably to Obama's.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Oct 8, 2011 7:01:44 PM

"He's a coward."

Right. Very nuanced. The guy is attacked all over the place for doing things, often with little leg to stand on, and he's hesitant here, and it means he is "a coward." Life is so much simpler when we simplifier it past credibility.

As to the furlough issue, HE didn't "extend" anything, since the breadth of the law is a legislative matter. The MA Supreme Court held that the law applied to "first-degree murderers" ("murderers" is a broader statement). My response does not cover all criticism, but the criticism he received (and not just on this one matter) clearly not all correct. As with "simply" calling Obama a "coward," such hyperbole is best left to talk radio games about the AL or NL ball teams.

Posted by: Joe | Oct 9, 2011 1:01:24 PM

this is very informative post. thanks for sharing with us its a nice blog.

Posted by: how to drop ship | Dec 23, 2011 3:52:22 PM

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