Here in Washington, the countdown to Inauguration Day -- January 21 -- is in earnest. That day is the official end of President Barack Obama's first presidential term, prompting Jacob Sullum over at Reason to ask whether he'll become the least merciful president in American history.
December, a traditional season for presidential clemency, has come and gone, and still Obama has granted just one commutation (which shortens a prisoner’s sentence) and 22 pardons (which clear people’s records, typically after they've completed their sentences). Barring a last-minute flurry of clemency actions, his first-term record looks weaker than those of all but a few previous presidents.We'd be delighted to see some clemency granted between now and January 21. We'd be even more delighted if clemency became as frequent and regular a part of our criminal justice system as it was before the 1980s, when presidents granted commutations and pardons not just at holidays and on their way out the White House door, but throughout the year, to hundreds of worthy applicants.
Which of Obama’s predecessors managed to make less use of the clemency power during their first terms? According to numbers compiled by P.S. Ruckman Jr., a professor of political science at Rock Valley College in Rockville, Illinois, just three: George Washington, who probably did not have many clemency petitions to address during the first few years of the nation’s existence; William Henry Harrison, who died of pneumonia a month after taking office; and James Garfield, who was shot four months into his presidency and died that September.
With the exception of Washington's first term, then, Obama so far has been stingier with pardons and commutations than any other president, especially when you take into account the growth of the federal penal system during the last century, the elimination of parole, the proliferation of mandatory minimums, and the concomitant increase in petitions. This is a remarkable development for a man who proclaims that "life is all about second chances" and who has repeatedly described our criminal justice system as excessively harsh.
There's no time like the present to turn over a new leaf.