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January 9, 2013

"Barack the Unmerciful: Obama's amazingly stingy clemency record"

The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary by Jacob Sollum over at Reason.com. Here are excerpts:

Will Barack Obama go down in history as our least merciful president? With less than two weeks to go in his first term, this reputedly progressive and enlightened man has a strong shot at winning that dubious distinction.

December, a traditional season for presidential clemency, has come and gone, and still Obama has 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). Barring a last-minute flurry of clemency actions, 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 Rockville, 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....

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 unjust.

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).

As Obama embarks upon a second term, he deserves credit for this amazing accomplishment: He has made Richard Nixon look like a softie.

January 9, 2013 at 11:55 AM | Permalink


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This is like the hard line position he took on the treatment of illegal immigrants during his first term. There is no valid reason for it. Is he trying to prove to the right wingers that he is not the "most liberal/socialist president in history?" If this is his reasoning then I don't think it's working. And on the other hand, there have been far fewer prosecutions of Wall street bankers under Obama's administration as compared to the 1000's after the S & L crisis during Reagan's term or the prosecutions of Enron, Tyco and other execs during Bush's term.
Alan Winograd, DefenseAttorney

Posted by: Alan Winograd | Jan 9, 2013 2:40:23 PM

Obama conned us.

Unprecedented blanket immunity for bankers.
Unprecedented attack on government whistleblowers.
Unprecedented blatantly illegal extra-territorial slaughter of innocents in drone strikes.
Unprecedented disregard for international law and treaty obligations.
Unprecedented assertion of power to execute American citizens that he labels as "terrorists."
Unprecedented assertion of power of unlimited detention of those he labels "terrorists."
Unprecedented imprisonment and deportation of farmworkers.
Unprecedented lack of clemency actions.
Unprecedented record of appointing revolving-door cronies.
Unprecedented lack of gender and racial equality in his appointments.
Signed into law (twice) the extension of the Bush tax cuts.

Hey, but he did back the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell...

My goodness, how Obama conned us.

Posted by: James | Jan 9, 2013 4:13:18 PM

You're right James - He has taken bold actions when using his execuative priviledge and power. Maybe he'll use this execuative power to grant a group clemency to non-violent drug offenders, however it does look like it would be a U-turn in both substance and sentiment.

Posted by: beth | Jan 9, 2013 4:37:05 PM

Regarding those ratios comparing Obama's pardon rates with other recent presidents -- I assume that the stats for the other presidents encompass their entire terms? If so, the comparison is misleading, because presidents often wait until they are about to leave office to issue large numbers of pardons. Let's run the numbers in 2017 and see how they look.
That said, given the politics of the matter, it's remarkable that anyone gets pardoned nowadays. A pardon only benefits one person. On the other hand, it opens the president up to general attacks that he is "soft on crime," and more specific attacks if a pardonee gets in trouble for something else. Obama's political opposition would be very happy to take on these attacks if they had an opening. If his pardon record is stingy, there's nothing amazing or surprising about it.
Ryan (defense attorney).

Posted by: Ryan from Las Vegas | Jan 9, 2013 6:16:20 PM

Ryan, your assumption would be incorrect. The author first provided data per president, then per four year term. There is nothing at all misleading. He is right on target with the best information available. Best,

Posted by: P.S. Ruckman, Jr. | Jan 9, 2013 8:02:14 PM

: : "Unprecedented lack of gender and racial equality in his appointments.
: : "Hey, but he did back the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell..."

Obtuse liberals are right. How about some more executive orders?

"Unprecedented" beginning at what point?

Don't forget about "equality" for trans-sexuals and homo-sexuals and bi-sexuals/tri-sexuals.

Posted by: Adamakis | Jan 10, 2013 1:30:15 PM

A thi!

--|-- "President Obama appointed three openly transgender people to serve in his administration, making him the first president ever to do so… U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan became the first U.S. Cabinet Secretary to address a transgender-specific community event. "

--|-- "Obama Administration Officials have collaborated with transgender advocates…The State Department now includes an evaluation of the state… transphobia overseas. "

--|-- •"President Obama‘s Office of Personnel Management …The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission…Social Security Administration…The Department Of Health and Human Services…The Affordable Care Act…the first U.S. Executive Branch official to testify before Congress in support…has awarded a $3.3 million grant to the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center to begin to address LGBT youth homelessness. "

--|-- "President Obama required all hospitals that receive Medicare and Medicaid funds to recognize a patient’s designated partner… federal support of young people forming Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA)… to the transgender and intersex Veterans enrolled in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)… The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD's) Live Free fair housing education and outreach campaign specifically targeted the transgender community…

--|-- "The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) announced grant opportunities to address HIV health care quality specifically for transgender women of color…The State Department now allows transgender…passport gender markers..."

xoxoxo www.transunitedforobama.org xoxoxo

[Sorry for the oversight--the *man has delivered]
*Is this discriminatory?

Posted by: Adamakis | Jan 10, 2013 1:36:01 PM

Mr. Ruckman,

I was referring only to the data in the second-to-last paragraph of the excerpt, which I understood to refer to the entire presidencies. If it refers to only their first terms, my assumption stands corrected (although the distinction is not made clear in the article).
Even considering only first terms, I would still contend that is misleading to compare Obama's pardon rates with presidents who served only one term in office - politically, it's much easier to issue a bunch of pardons at the end of your first term if your on your way out of the office. It does appear that Obama's pardon rates may be much lower than the first term rates of other two term presidents, like Reagon or Nixon. But as per my second point, I don't find this surprising. It is much easier for a president like Reagan or Nixon to issue large numbers of pardons than Obama, who for a variety of reasons is much more vulnerable to political attack on this matter. I am not defending this reality -- I'm just pointing it out.

Posted by: Ryan from Las Vegas | Jan 10, 2013 2:12:31 PM

Hello Hi fellow humans freedom fighters the undivided, we 'must' provide psychopaths with brutal merciless physical consequence, before it's too late. psychopaths atypically 'never' learn, so we must treat them like a wild animal that's repeatedly determined to break into a nursery to eat our children. In the meantime, However, it's important to keep our 'spirits' up and attack the beast with ridicule also. Have you seen the latest on Obama? – It was written by another of my courageous heroes, it's hilarious and mind blowing, if it goes viral I don’t think Obama could survive it :- http://Christlike.be/Obama.php This guy does a brilliant job on the lizard queen :- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HhF9bsyqcCc Cheers, Cheryl

Posted by: Cheryl | Mar 17, 2013 7:24:21 PM

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