Obama's Record-Breaking Commutations Leave Much Work to Do

In raw numbers, the president has far surpassed his recent predecessors, but his petition approval rate is only middling.


Yesterday, as Scott Shackford noted, President Obama commuted 214 sentences for drug offenses, including 67 life sentences. According to clemency expert P.S. Ruckman Jr., that is the largest number of commutations ever granted in a single day, surpassing the previous record of 151 set by FDR in 1935. Obama's new total, 562, is more commutations than were granted by his nine most recent predecessors combined and more commutations than were granted by any single president since Calvin Coolidge, whose total was 773.

In terms of raw numbers, Obama blows his recent two-term predecessors out of the water. With about six months left to go in his administration, he has issued more than 50 times as many commutations as George W. Bush (a self-described "compassionate conservative"), 43 times as many as Ronald Reagan, 12 times as many as Dwight Eisenhower, almost five times as many as Harry Truman, nine times as many as Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon, and more than twice as many as Lyndon Johnson. Obama, who shortened just one sentence in his first term and just 20 in the first two years of his second term combined, is clearly trying to make up for lost time, and he deserves credit for that.

Office of the Pardon Attorney

But as measured by the percentage of petitions granted, Obama's record is still only middling compared to other recent presidents. As of June 6, he had received 23,325 commutation requests, in addition to about 1,000 that were pending when he took office. He has approved 2.3 percent of them, which is better than the Bushes, Reagan, or Clinton but still less than Jimmy Carter's petition approval rate or Gerald Ford's and about half as high as Nixon's.

Part of the problem is that Obama has received a lot more petitions than his predecessors but has not devoted enough resources to processing them, despite his apparently sincere interest in ameliorating draconian sentences. As Lauren Krisai noted here last June, understaffing was one of the reasons that Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff, appointed in 2014, cited for resigning last January:

In her resignation letter to Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, Leff wrote that the Justice Department had "not fulfilled its commitment to provide the resources necessary for my office to make timely and thoughtful recommendations on clemency to the president." According to USA Today, "Leff said Yates had overruled her recommendations in an increasing number of cases—and that in those cases, the president was unaware of the difference of opinion. "

Leff also complained that Obama was neglecting pardons—which clear people's records, typically long after they've completed their sentences, rather than shortening their prison terms—to focus almost exclusively on commutations. Obama has issued just 70 pardons so far.

The Office of the Pardon Attorney had only 10 lawyers to review clemency petitions until this year, when it hired 16 more. With 26 lawyers and about 13,000 clemency petitions still pending (including requests for pardons as well as commutations), each attorney is responsible for handling about 500 cases, or 2.6 per working day remaining until Obama leaves office. And that's not including any additional petitions forwarded by Clemency Project 2014, the network of volunteer lawyers who are trying to assist the Office of the Pardon Attorney at the administration's request.

Those volunteers have rejected around 96 percent of the candidates they have reviewed because they did not meet the Justice Department's excessively picky criteria, which among other things rule out prisoners who have served less than 10 years, prisoners who would get the same sentence under current law, and prisoners with more than a minimal criminal history. Krisai noted that even prisoners who meet the DOJ criteria have to make it through a series of formidable bureaucratic obstacles: The severely understaffed Office of the Pardon Attorney decides which files should be sent to Deputy Attorney General Yates, who decides which ones should be fowarded to White House Counsel W. Neil Eggleston, who decides which ones merit the president's attention.

In 2014, when the administration signaled a new openness to commutation requests, one official suggested that Obama's final commutation total could be in the "thousands," which seems quite unlikely at this point. Even if Obama granted 214 commutations a month from September until January, he would fall short of that prediction.

Obama has shown more interest in the problem of excessively punitive sentences than any of his recent predecessors. But the upshot of his late start, the DOJ's unnecessarily strict criteria, understaffing, and multiple layers of review is that many people who do not belong in prison will remain there—people who might have been freed if the president had given commutations more sustained attention and resources. "While the commutations President Obama granted today are an important step forward," St. Thomas University law professor Mark Osler told USA Today, "they remind us of how much more work this administration has to do if it is to grant relief for every person eligible."

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  1. Man Obama must have been super busy those first six years. I’m sure the people rotting in prison understood.

    1. How was he supposed to know? Black Lives Matter isn’t older than/didn’t matter until his second term.

  2. I have never understood why the POTUS would be selective with this power. Especially a Constitutional Scholar.

    1. There are political considerations. No one wants to be the one responsible for letting free that Willie Horton type stoner.

    2. Politics. If crime increases as a result of mass commutation, it will reflect extremely poorly on any President who does so.

      1. Crime has been declining steadily since the 90s. Hell, with all this populism, you’d think you’d hear more “Give us Barabas!”

        1. Hey, my fantasy President on Day One would be all decriminalizing drugs at the federal level and Day Two would be about mass commutation of any sentence that is purely drug-related. It’s a great fantasy, but it’s just not going to happen and if I’m gonna be hard on Obama about everything else, I’ll be glad when he does something right (and his process for commutations and the number approved is a huge leap forward).

          1. And on day three, firing every single person in every single executive regulatory agency.

            1. You left out the word “squad”

  3. I’m no fan of Obama, but commuting at the end of a President’s tenure is par for the course and unfortunately a political necessity. It’s very easy to gain unnecessary and unsought scandal from commutation, and Obama didn’t put these people in prison to begin with so any commutations he does are above and beyond the call of duty. To be honest, the sheer number of commutations (assuming it was not motivated by Clinton-style financial considerations) is praiseworthy and one of the few things that is commendable about his Presidency; it beggars belief that we are seriously bitching about him not dedicating enough government resources to process a record number of petitions.

  4. “as measured by the percentage of petitions granted”

    Would you cut that out?

    I suspect there were fewer petitions under previous administrations, based on a reasonable assessment that it would be pointless.

    This administration has *encouraged* clemency petitions, and indicated that there may actually be a chance the petitions will be granted.

    Don’t make me defend Obama.

    1. His commutation approval rate was even lower prior to 2014, when the administration was not encouraging petitions.

  5. Sadly, about the best thing he has done with his presidency.

  6. PS Ruckman Jr? I’m assuming his father was Peter S. Ruckman. When I lived in Pensacola, I unfortunately worked with some guys who went to Ruckman’s church. Talk about a complete fucking loon.

    1. that there’s what you call a “colorful” character.

  7. Trump will release anyone who pledges eternal fealty to him. Nevertheless he’s not a commie like Obama because:

    1. “Access denied: Salt levels exceeding the maximum safe amounts, hypernatrimia forming in host body. Recommending full electrolyte replacement and rehydration until salt levels return to safe amounts.”

      Also, the Johnbait is weak. 0/10.

      1. Trump is not more commie than Obama because his Trumpkins are not as good at accusing their dissenters of ‘paranoid delusion’ and other ‘tinfoil hat’ pecadillos.

  8. If I was Obama, I would just spend the rest of my term commuting sentences.
    I’d have a team of people meticulously combing through the whole prison population and commuting sentences even of people who hadn’t petitioned. The ones who are petitioning are the ones who can afford good lawyers.

  9. i get Paid Over ?80 per hour working from home with 2 kids at house. I never thought I would be able to do it but my best friend earns over ?9185 a month doing this and she convinced me to try. The potential with this is endless.

    Heres what I’ve been doing,………

  10. This article makes commuting sentences of convicted people benign — like a feel good movie where the convicted has been misunderstood — wrongfully accused — but that is not what is happening. Obama has released drug dealers with guns. After he lectures us on the horrors of gun possession legal or illegal and how guns are our largest problem he releases those who have used guns illegally — either by being a felon in possession of a gun or using a gun while selling or manufacturing drugs. So I’m confused on the message. Does Obama now think it is okay for Americans (legal or illegal) to possess firearms (legal or illegal) in their daily activities? Here’s an example of one of the commutees: Richard Eugene Dains ? Porter, TX
    Offense: Did conspire to manufacture methamphetamine; did knowingly and unlawfully possess in and affecting commerce, a firearm and prior thereto the defendant had been convicted in a court of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year; did knowingly use and carry a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime for which the defendant may be prosecuted in a court of the United States, namely, conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine; Eastern District of Texas
    Sentence: Life imprisonment; 10 years’ supervised release (October 16, 1992)

    Commutation Grant: Prison sentence commuted to expire on October 1, 2016.

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