In the aftermath of Baltimore, Ron Fournier came up with an interesting critique of the President.
President Obama is trying to help Americans understand why their cities are erupting in protests and violence. With eloquence and empathy, he speaks of grievances over race and a toxic stew of social failure: bad policies, bad politics, bad policing, and bad parenting. “We as a country have to do some soul-searching,” Obama said in the aftermath of rioting in Baltimore. “If our society really wanted to solve the problem, we could.”
Which is why I can’t figure out why he hasn’t done his part. For all of the causes and solutions outside a president’s control, Obama has virtually ignored his singular power to send a message that judicial reform is now a priority in Washington: executive clemency.
I’ve been closely following President Obama’s Clemency Initiative, so – of course – that peaked my interest. Fournier is reacting to this recent article by Gregory Korte in USA Today and provides this quote to back up his contention that the President “hasn’t done his part” when it comes to providing executive clemency.
Under the Constitution, the president “shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States.” And for much of the nation’s history, presidents have used that power frequently in order to forgive past crimes, restore civil rights, show mercy, and correct injustices.
But that power has withered over the last 40 years. President Nixon pardoned 51 percent of applications received, according to statistics compiled by political scientist P.S. Ruckman Jr.
For Bush, the rate was 7.6 percent. And for Obama, it’s half of that.
As his argument progresses, it becomes clear that Fournier is confusing the statistics above (which have to do with the number of “pardons” presidents have granted) with the focus of President Obama’s Clemency Initiative (which is the “commutation” of a sentence). Typically pardons are granted as forgiveness of a crime after the sentence has been served while commutation is an early release for those currently in prison.
This chart at the Department of Justice website breaks down all the stats you need to know about pardons and commutations by presidents going back to William McKinley. What you will find there is that Korte is right, President Obama has granted fewer pardons than any modern president – 64 in six years.
But what you will also see is that the number of petitions for commutation went from roughly 1,000 per year to over 6,500 in FY 2014 after the President announced his Clemency Initiative. During the last six years, over 16,500 petitions have been received. That is almost double the number filed during George W. Bush’s administration and almost three times the number received during Clinton’s eight years.
It’s true that prior to the Clemency Initiative, President Obama was also stingy with commutations. But in the 6 months so far of FY2015, he has granted 33. Other than the 40 Clinton granted during his last few months in office, that is the single highest annual total since Lyndon Johnson (and significantly higher than most presidents have granted in their entire term).
A little over a month ago, when the President announced the most recent round of commutations that are the direct result of his Clemency Initiative, the White House made it clear that they will continue this effort until all applications for clemency are thoroughly reviewed. So we can expect these numbers to continue to rise over the next 21 months.
If people want to criticize President Obama for not granting more pardons, that is a justified critique. But if, as Fournier suggests, the President needs to send a message about mass incarceration and the need for criminal justice reform, his Clemency Initiative is exactly the right strategy.