The recent surge in commutations granted by President Obama is impressive, especially compared with the number he issued prior to last year. Obama's annual commutation average was 0.25 during his first term and less than four during the first six years of his administration. By contrast, he has shortened 1,155 sentences since January 2015, an average of about 578 per year. He also looks a lot more merciful than his four most recent predecessors, whether measured by total commutations or percentage of petitions granted. But The New York Times got a little carried away in covering this week's clemency actions, which included 78 pardons and 153 commutations.
The Times called Obama's total of 1,324 pardons (which clear people's records, typically years after they have completed their sentences) and commutations (which let prisoners go free early) "by far the largest use of the presidential power to show mercy in the nation's history." As clemency expert P.S. Ruckman Jr. pointed out on his blog, that was clearly wrong. Several presidents have issued more than 1,324 pardons and commuations, including Harry Truman (2,031), FDR (3,307), Calvin Coolidge (1,546), and Woodrow Wilson (2,453).
The Times also falsely suggested that there's nothing unusual about the dramatic backloading of Obama's clemency actions, saying "most presidents—including Mr. Obama—have waited until the end of their presidencies before issuing pardons and making grants of commutation." In fact, Ruckman noted, "most presidents have granted clemency early in their administration and continued to do so every month of the term." Obama, by contrast, has had many months and two entire years with no clemency grants at all. So far he has issued 94 percent of his pardons and commutations in the last two years of his presidency and 81 percent in his last year. Ruckman notes that the number of clemency actions this year is about 1,300 percent higher than the average for the previous three years, compared to an average fourth-year surge of 73 percent for all other presidential terms.
Today the Times corrected these mistakes and added this note to the bottom of its story:
An article on Tuesday about pardons issued by President Obama erroneously attributed a distinction to his use of clemency during his two terms. His decision to pardon or commute the sentences of a total of 1,324 people is one of the largest uses of clemency by a president—not "by far the largest." (Several presidents exceeded that number when both pardons and commutations were counted.) The article also referred incorrectly to the timing of presidential pardons and commutations. Clemency has often been granted throughout presidential terms, not solely at the end of those terms.
The White House itself seems to have misrepresented Obama's clemency record by claiming that the 231 pardons and commutations issued on Monday were "the most individual acts of clemency granted in a single day by any president in this nation's history." That assertion was repeated in many news reports. But as one of Ruckman's readers pointed out, Truman pardoned "1,523 specifically named persons"—all "convicted of violating the Selective Training and Service Act"—on December 23, 1947.