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:
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:
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:
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):
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."