Will Barack Obama go down in history as our least merciful president? As he began his second term, this reputedly progressive and enlightened man had a strong shot at winning that dubious distinction.
December, a traditional season for presidential clemency, came and went, and still Obama had 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). 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).
Obama deserves credit for this amazing accomplishment: He has made Richard Nixon look like a softie.