Obama Could Have Achieved a Nixonian Level of Mercy If He Had Wasted Less Time

Nixon's commutation rate was more than four times as high.


The 58 commutations that President Obama granted yesterday brings his total so far to 306. That's quite impressive as a raw number (more than the seven previous presidents combined!), less so as a percentage of petitions received (better than Reagan, either Bush, or Clinton, about half as good as Carter, less than half as good as Ford, about a fifth as good as Nixon). Here are the commutation rates for Obama (so far) and his seven predecessors, based on numbers from the Office of the Pardon Attorney:

Office of the Pardon Attorney

Obama has only eight and a half months to go, so it seems unlikely that he will beat Ford or Carter, let alone achieve a Nixonian level of mercy. That's a shame, especially given Obama's repeated and emphatic criticism of our excessively punitive criminal justice. This chart gives you a sense of how much time he wasted:

Office of the Pardon Attorney

Obama's annual commutation average for his second term is 76 so far, more than 300 times his first-term average. If he had maintained that pace throughout his administration, his commutation total would be twice as big. If he pardoned as many people as he did last year in every year of his administration, he would have freed more than 1,300 prisoners by the time he left office—still not the "thousands" foreseen by an anonymous administration official in 2014 but almost enough to tie Richard Nixon's commutation rate.