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November 27, 2013

"20% Of Obama’s Pardons Have Gone To Turkeys"

Presidential-pardonsThe title of this post is the fitting headline devised by Andrew Sullivan for this post from The Dish. The post links to this longer lament of the entire turkey pardon ritual by Brad Plummer, which winds down this way:

It's a mockery of the presidential pardon, which is an all-too neglected issue. Maybe this isn't surprising, since the turkey pardon was basically invented as a way of mocking presidential pardons. Still, it's worth mentioning.

After tomorrow, Obama will have "pardoned" 10 turkeys in all (turkeys that, as best we can tell, haven't actually committed any crimes). By contrast, he will have only pardoned or commuted the sentences of 40 actual living human beings.

The latter is a record low for modern-day presidents.  At the same point in his presidency, Ronald Reagan had pardoned 313 people.  Harry Truman had pardoned 1,537 people.

Last year, Sam Morrison, an official who spent 13 years in the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney before retiring in 2010, described the prevailing attitude toward pardons this way: "They tend to view any grant of clemency not as a good thing, as a criminal justice success story, but almost as a defeat — that you're taking away something from what some good prosecutor achieved." (The Justice Department disputed this characterization.)

Over at National Journal, Ron Fournier pointed out that, at the bare minimum, Obama could grant clemency to all the people still serving extra time in prison under the old crack-sentencing guidelines — guidelines that Obama himself opposed as excessive and which Congress reduced for all new prisoners in 2010.  So far, however, there's no sign that the White House will do this.

Of course, comparing Prez Obama's pitiful clemency record to the records of prior presidents like Ronald Reagan or Harry Truman is quite unfair — to Reagan and Truman. The federal criminal justice system and the federal prison population (not to mention the negative consequences of a federal record) were all much, much smaller when Reagan and Truman were President, and thus the number of federal offenders and prisoners formally seeking clemency was much lower. Indeed, these official clemency statistics reveal that Prez Obama gets about 10 times as many formal commutation requests than Prez Reagan got each year (which, is not so surprising given that the federal prison population is nearly 10 times larger now than it was when Reagan first became President).

Indeed, if we focus on only commutations, President Obama's record looks even more revolting.  As Jacob Sullum notes here at Forbes, Obama has only commuted a single federal prison sentence.  Thus, as the Forbes headline states, "Judging From His Clemency Record, Obama Likes Turkeys 10 Times As Much As People."

November 27, 2013 at 08:58 PM | Permalink


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This is a dismal aspect of the Obama Presidency. This is a duty. Not some prerogative. It can be abused. I recall that Clinton went out of office with some pardons issued the last day or so that were questionable. Ford pardoned Nixon. Obama rails at the RepubliCons for holding up nominations for judgeships but sits on his arse on Turkey Day when he should be pardoning people not turkeys.

Good article here. Much needed.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Nov 27, 2013 11:27:09 PM

I would rather a president had the backbone for the Thanksgiving turkey execution.

"Off with their heads!"

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Nov 28, 2013 10:10:18 AM

Please point to the line in the constitution that says pardoning is a "duty."

He can choose to do it or he can choose not to.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Nov 29, 2013 8:19:41 PM


Regardless of whether the president has a duty to pardon anyone (I personally don't believe any such duty exists) I see the turkey pardoning as particularly wasteful political theater.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Nov 30, 2013 12:10:22 PM

Birds of a feather flock together.

Posted by: federalist | Nov 30, 2013 6:42:09 PM

Not a duty but a prerogative. OTOH, Alexander Hamilton said in The Federalist Papers that it "should be as little as possible fettered or embarrassed." That it has become utterly fettered for fear of embarrassment shows how far we've strayed from original principles in the era of mass incarceration.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Dec 3, 2013 2:33:30 PM

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