Clemency

Obama Issued More Commutations Than Any Previous President but Neglected Pardons

Donald Trump and his attorney general take a dim view of Obama's mercy.

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True to his word, President Obama continued using his clemency power on the way out the door, granting commutations to an additional 330 federals prisoners yesterday. Almost all of the commutation recipients are serving time for nonviolent drug offenses, including 64 who were sentenced to life. The list includes Tennessee marijuana grower Paul Fields, who received a sentence of 188 months (nearly 16 years) in 2010. Obama shortened Fields' sentence to 10 years, so with credit for good behavior he should be released in another two or three years.

As of Tuesday, Obama had issued more commutations than any other president in U.S. history. His final tally, 1,715, exceeds the combined total of his 13 most recent predecessors. Nearly all of the recipients are drug offenders, including 568 who were serving life terms. In absolute numbers, Obama blows recent presidents out of the water:

Office of the Pardon Attorney

The federal prison population, thanks largely to the war on drugs, grew dramatically during this period, and Obama received far more commutation petitions than previous presidents: 33,149, nearly four times as many as George W. Bush and 37 times as many as Richard Nixon. Obama's commutation record therefore looks less impressive as a percentage of petitions received. By that measure, he was much more merciful than his four most recent predecessors and significantly more merciful than Jimmy Carter or Gerald Ford but still less merciful than Nixon:

OPA

Aside from their sheer number, the most striking aspect of Obama's commutations is the extent to which they were concentrated at the very end of his administration—far more so than any previous president's, as clemency expert P.S. Ruckman Jr. points out. "Most presidents have granted clemency early in their administration and continued to do so every month of the term," Ruckman notes. By contrast, Obama granted 99 percent of his commutations during his last two years and 89 percent in his last 10 months:

OPA

Like Ruckman, clemency attorney Samuel Morison thinks issuing commutations steadily over the course of an administration is "a much more rational way to do this." In a recent interview with Vice News, Morison worried that a last-minute rush "creates a cloud of uncertainty" and "feeds the perception" that "there's something corrupt" about the process.

In contrast with his enormous commutation surge, Obama's record for pardons (which clear people's records, usually long after they have completed their sentences) is weaker than those of almost all his modern predecessors, even those who were in office for much less time. The only exceptions are the two Bushes (who also were remarkably stingy with commutations):

OPA

It's a safe bet that Donald Trump, who ran on a "law and order" platform and picked an attorney general who condemned Obama's commutations as an "unprecedented" and "reckless" abuse of executive power, will show a lot less interest in clemency than Obama did. He may even aspire to Bushian levels of disregard for injustice. "Some of these people are bad dudes," Trump said at a campaign rally last August, referring to drug offenders whose sentences Obama had recently commuted. "And these are people who are out. They're walking the streets. Sleep tight, folks."

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  1. Professional courtesy?

  2. When I was a little kid, the neighbor guy used to grab me and drag me off to the woodshed and fuck me up the ass and then he’d make me suck his dick, but afterward he’d give me a piece of candy to get the taste out of my mouth. That’s just the sort of considerate guy he was.

    1. I still don’t see what that has to do with the white house having lost a stack of pardon forms.

    2. Sounds like you were asking for it.

      1. You should have seen the way he was dressed.

    3. But you stayed off his lawn after that, didn’t you?

      1. But he wanted more candy.

    4. Let me guess: it’s years later and you’re still dealing with dental issues from that candy.

      1. If only there had been a sugar tax in place at the time.

    1. Trump can’t rescind what Obama did in this case.

  3. Some of the people he gave clemency actually are bad dudes, the unrepentant free Puerto Rico terrorist for example.

    He deserves praise for some of these clemencies but let’s not get carried away and, Jacob, you’re doing a fine job-cupping the balls and everything.

  4. Carter pardoning every person that dodged the draft doesn’t count for anything?

    Also, no mention in the article of Obama prosecuting more people under the Espionage Act than all other presidents combined? I mean, it at least bears mentioning in an article praising his graciousness toward people that he prosecuted more people under the Espionage Act than all other presidents combined.

    1. I was going to mention Carter’s amnesty, I strongly suspect it affected more people than the graph indicates.

      I guess they’re only counting pardons of *named* persons?

      1. I think that strictly speaking a pardon has to be for a specific crime by a specific person.

  5. What I see is someone who only started granting clemency to people after the last mid term elections during his administration. He was willing to let people rot in jail just to prevent any chance of the Republicans using it against him in any elections.

    And why not just let anyone you are granting clemency out NOW? Why tell the guy who is serving 16 unjust years out that he now only has to serve 10 years? I guess it is better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, but it still sucks rocks.

  6. “Some of these people are bad dudes,”

    I’m uncertain of how accurate that was in August, but Oscar Lopez Rivera was definitely not a good clemency pick. The problem comes down to if some of the more violent offenders return to their old ways, as it will help to delegitimize the clemency, and even the pardon process. Personally I would have focused on non-violent offenders only.

    1. Also, more pardons for non-violent offenders, less clemency.

      1. Agreed, and, yes, Rivera was an absolutely terrible and unjustifiable pick.

  7. Obama shortened Fields’ sentence to 10 years, so with credit for good behavior he should be released in another two or three years.

    What a guy. Changing the sentence from absurdly harsh to ridiculously harsh.

    Why not let all of these people out now?

  8. Historically the pardon rate seems to be far higher – Obama is definitely an abberation in the use of commutation. Truman and Eisenhower pardoned a boatload of people. Wonder what was going on back then to get Ike to do 1100?

  9. Can we get a ruling – do commutations count as “Pardons” or “Reprieves”? Because those are the only two forms of clemency the President can grant, and my Internet searches show both interpretations.

    I had thought a “Reprieve” was a “postponment” of punishment, like putting off someone’s execution for a week.

    Any legal eagles (or anyone else) want to comment?

    1. *postponement* should have been inside asterisks, not quotation marks

    2. It’s a reprieve. From wherever Google gets their definitions:

      noun
      noun: reprieve; plural noun: reprieves

      1.
      a cancellation or postponement of a punishment.

  10. “It’s a safe bet that Donald Trump… ”

    Reason continues to bet against Donald Trump…

  11. Obama blotted his clemency escutcheon by letting that FALN terrorist guy out of prison, I hope that doesn’t give his successors the wrong lesson – not to give anyone clemency.

    The reduction of all these sentences seems to me to be a good thing – you can acknowledge his faults (including not doing more clemencies) without being overly bitchy about the stuff he *did* do.

    1. the reduction of all those sentences *for nonviolent offenses* seems to be a good thing – except Manning, and I’m not sure his betrayal counts as nonviolent.

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