Barack the Unmerciful

Obama's amazingly stingy clemency record

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 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 law." 

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 offenders." 

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. 

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  • ||

    Cue a progressive saying "Yes, but... " in 3, 2, 1...

  • Whiterun Guard||

    But Bush something something...

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Yes, but to issue a pardon or clemency is an admission that a state action can be a wrong that must be righted.

  • ||

    Well done, you are our lucky winner. Your Katrina van Heuvel Pleasure Droid is in the mail

  • Zombie Jimbo||

    Oooh, If the KvH droid is the '90s model I'd take it off your hands. However the 2012 addition probably wouldn't be worth the batteries.

  • SugarFree||

    More wrinkles = more fun.

  • Marshall Gill||

    Four words and I threw up in my mouth? I shudder and fear for humanity when I consider your potential.

  • sarcasmic||

    Exactly. Part of being in authority is never admitting fault.

  • Restoras||

    Exactly right. It is also, even more cynically, a great power that can be used to great advantage only rarely. To grant clemecy to someone almost never results in any gain for the one who grants it.

  • ||

    nor for society as a whole.

  • Whiterun Guard||

    Well, typically presidents use the pardon power to get their friends and relatives out of prison or get their records clear.

    Obama's friends and family are not criminals, unlike most other presidents, so he doesn't have anyone to really pardon.

  • WTF||

    Good point, his DOJ would actually have to convict some of these thugs for him to need to pardon them, and that just ain't gonna happen.

  • Marshall Gill||

    Science, Sullum lay off of the LSD. There is absolutely nothing "amazing" about this shit-stain not using the pardon. The headline reads like you actually bought some of this ass-hat's bullshit.

  • Ted S.||

    I think he's shocked in the same sense that Claude Rains was shocked there was gambling going on at Rick's.

  • Whiterun Guard||

    Maybe in the same manner that Willy Wonka was shocked that Violet Beauregard wouldn't quit chewing his experimental gum.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Oompa-loompa, doompaty-dee
    If you are wise, you'll listen to me.
    Obama's not a very caring cat,
    So don't expect compassion from that asshat.

  • ||

    Obviously we are undeserving of His mercy.

  • $park¥||

    I don't think there was anything soft about Tricky Dick.

  • ||

    Finally, something about Obama I can appreciate. If the judiciary finds somneone broke the law, jail time it is for them. Executive clemency is way over used. Obama has done well to NOT meddle.

  • UCrawford||

    Agreed. I despise Obama but I think he deserves credit for not using the pardons. He's not a king, he's a frigging elected figurehead who panders for a living and is generally incompetent at the most important aspects of his job. Why on earth would we want him second guessing the decisions of the court system and sticking his fingers into that?

    Jeez, Sullum, recognize when we've finally got a good thing going. Obama recognizes the importance of separate authority in at least one area of government.

  • MacKlingon||

    Maybe the bad guys just can't meet his price.

  • Zombie Jimbo||

    The DOJ already seized their assets, they have nothing left to bargain with.

  • Killazontherun||

    Just another bit of data in a long, daily updated, array that suggest the American people elected a psychopath.

    The most amusing and convincing being the one where he thought it would be necessary to make some definitive rules about robotic assassinations for future presidents to live by.

  • Gladstone||

    "Progressives" and "enlightened people" supported the likes of Stalin and Mao so I don't how why they should support pardons.

    Also remember how Robespierre hated the death penalty...until he was in charge that is.

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