President Obama's remarkably stingy clemency record improved slightly last December, when he shortened eight sentences, enough to push his commutation total above those of several predecessors, including both Bushes and Ronald Reagan. But as USA Today notes, Obama's total for pardons—which clear people's records, typically after they have completed their sentences—is still worse than any modern president's. In fact, to find a president who issued fewer pardons than the 64 Obama has granted so far, you have to go all the way back to James Garfield, who was shot four months after taking office in 1881 and died 11 weeks later from a combination of his wound and unsanitary doctoring. Among two-term presidents, Obama has issued fewer pardons than anyone but George Washington, who surely did not receive nearly as many applications.
Those comparisons are courtesy of Rock Valley College political scientist P.S. Ruckman Jr., who keeps track of clemency actions on his invaluable blog Pardon Power. Ruckman notes another troubling aspect of Obama's pardons, aside from their rarity: They tend to come long after they can do much good. "The people who are being pardoned are people on Social Security," he told USA Today. "The people who need pardons are young and need to establish themselves and get a job, get a Pell grant, and go to college." But as the paper points out, the recipients of Obama's pardons generally do not meet that description:
On average, 23 years have elapsed between the sentencing date and the day Obama has granted a pardon or commutation—an all-time high. A century ago, three or four years was the norm.
In Obama's last round of pardons, the 12 recipients had been sentenced between 1964 and 1997. Of those who served time behind bars (about half, with sentences ranging from 75 days to six years), the recipient released most recently was freed two decades before his pardon. USA Today focuses on Roy Auvil, "a 76-year-old retired truck driver from Illinois" who "didn't realize he was a felon until he went to renew his state firearms permit two years ago." Auvil was arrested for bootlegging and got five months' probation—50 years ago.
Obama still has two years to improve his clemency record, and the Justice Department has signaled a new openness to petitions, actively seeking commutation applications from prisoners who meet certain criteria. Last year a "senior administration official" told Yahoo News the administration's new clemency guidelines could result in "hundreds, perhaps thousands," of commutations. But the clock is ticking, and three of the commutations that the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney says Obama granted in recent months seem to be imaginary. According to the office's count, Obama has issued a total of 21 commutations, including 11 in the last three months of 2014. But according to the White House, the total is 18, including eight during the current fiscal year. I contacted the Justice Department to see if Obama secretly issued three commutations that the White House decided not to publicize but have not heard back yet. Sadly, this apparent error raises Obama's commutation total by 17 percent.
Update: The discrepancy between the Justice Department's tally and the commutations announced by the White House seems to be explained by the three Cuban spies who were released in December as part of the prisoner swap that accompanied Obama's renewal of diplomatic relations with Cuba. At the time Politico reported that "White House officials declined to answer questions…about the release of [Gerardo] Hernández, Ramón Labañino and Antonio Guerrero or whether Obama granted them formal commutations." Apparently it's official now, although you would not guess that from what the White House has said.