Criminal Justice

Obama Pardon Tally: Flightless Fowl 1, Human Beings 0

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Debra Saunders laments that 10 months into his presidency, Barack Obama's first presidential pardon has gone to…a turkey.

According to political science Professor P.S. Ruckman Jr. of Rock Valley College in Illinois, Obama, a former constitutional law professor, has taken longer to use the executive pardon and commutation power than all but four presidents - George Washington, John Adams, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Obama hasn't pardoned a single ex-offender, even though about 1,200 people have asked for pardons because they have turned their lives around, expressed remorse for their crimes and now want to wipe the criminal slate clean of long-past offenses for which they paid the penalty.

Nor has Obama commuted the sentence of any of the 2,000 or so federal inmates seeking sentence reductions - many because of draconian federal mandatory minimum sentences.

Saunders notes that when he served in the Clinton administration, Obama's Attorney General Eric Holder's record with the pardon power was stingy, making exceptions of course for political patronage.

It's telling that over the last three administrations, the one executive power Clinton, Bush, and Obama have been reluctant to make broad use of is the one that grants clemency, forgiveness, and justice to the governed.

I do disagree with Saunders on one point, though. She writes:

Of course, the pardon doesn't free anyone. It is a reward for reformed offenders who, after serving their sentences, have led exemplary lives and want a clean criminal slate so that they can vote or look for a job without revealing their past.

Forgiveness for contrite, admitted convicts has become the most common use of the pardon power. But it isn't the only reason the Founders gave it to the president. It was also intended to be a last check against injustice. Here's Alexander Hamilton defending the pardon power in Federalist 74:

The criminal code of every country partakes so much of necessary severity, that without an easy access to exceptions in favor of unfortunate guilt, justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel. As the sense of responsibility is always strongest, in proportion as it is undivided, it may be inferred that a single man would be most ready to attend to the force of those motives which might plead for a mitigation of the rigor of the law, and least apt to yield to considerations which were calculated to shelter a fit object of its vengeance.

Unfortunately, the pardon power is almost never used in this way. Unless you happen to be the former vice president's former chief of staff.

Professor Ruckman, by the way, has a terrific blog dedicated solely to the pardon power.