After a first term in which President Obama had issued less presidential mercy to shorten or revoke criminal sentences than any other president in modern history, Obama announced Friday that he would pardon 17 people for minor crimes with sentences of five years or less.
The pardons from president Obama revoke the convictions of the 17 individuals, meaning any remaining sentence is cut short and the criminal conviction is removed from their record. Twelve of the individuals had not been sentenced to any prison time at all. But the legal consequences that follow a person who has been convicted of a crime, known as collateral consequences, range from voting and employment limitations to restrictions on adoption, immigration, gun ownership and licensing. This is in addition to unlawful discrimination and cultural stigma that accompanies those with criminal convictions.
The president retains the constitutional power to grant pardons as well as commutations, which shorten an individual’s sentence. Presidents have historically used the power to correct inevitable injustices in the criminal system and grant a second chance to those who have turned their lives around. A White House spokesman told the New York Times that Obama granted pardons to those “who demonstrated genuine remorse and a strong commitment to being law-abiding, productive citizens and active members of their communities.”
But a study by investigative outlet ProPublica has shown that Obama has used his clemency power more rarely than any president in modern history, granting just 1 in 50 pardon applications, compared to 1 in 3 by this point in President Reagan’s first term, and 1 in 8 under President Clinton. His record on commutations is equally stark. Last year, the only pardon Obama granted went to a Thanksgiving turkey. This spare use of presidential mercy stands in contrast to draconian federal laws, particularly on both drug and immigration offenses, and a U.S. incarceration rate that eclipses every other country in the world.
Many have pointed to flaws in the Office of the Pardon Attorney, tasked with making recommendations to the president, because it is housed in the Department of Justice and thus institutionally inclined to preserve its own prosecutions. Others also point to misconduct by the current U.S. Pardon Attorney, who was found by the DOJ’s inspector general to have mishandled a commutation application by an individual serving a triple life sentence for his nominal role in a drug deal. Even after the 17 pardons granted today Obama has granted far less mercy in raw terms than any of his precedessors, including just one commutation.
Among those granted pardons was a man convicted of distributing cocaine who says he’s turned his life around, a former drug offender who has become an active member of the community since his release from prison in 1991 and an immigrant in Hawaii whose path to citizenship was blocked by a conviction on one charge of conspiracy to defraud the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Margaret Colgate Love, a former pardon attorney who represented two of the individuals granted clemency Friday, said she hoped Obama’s announcement was a signal that he will start granting clemency more regularly during his second term.