Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Obama may have stingiest pardon record of any American president

Recently Grits dubbed the President "Obama the Merciless" for his remarkably parsimonious pardon policy, and now a story in U.S. News and World Report MSNBC takes on the same theme. It opens:
President Barack Obama is on track to be one of the least forgiving of presidents in U.S. history — as measured by his use of presidential pardon powers, according to a political science professor who blogs about clemency exercised by presidents and governors.

"It is fair to say two things," said P.S. Ruckman Jr., who teaches at Rock Valley College in Rockville, Ill. "One is (Obama) is definitely being exceptionally stingy. There’s no doubt about that. There’s also no doubt that this is in a way unexpected."

As president, Obama has pardoned 23 people, including one commuted sentence, in his first 40 months in office. Barring a dramatic flurry of clemency from the White House in the coming eight months, Obama will be among the bottom two or three presidents for granting pardons in his first term, Ruckman said. That puts him in the running with Presidents George Washington, John Adams and James Garfield, who was assassinated after serving less than seven months.
The story mostly relies on the work of our blog-pal Prof. P.S. Ruckman, who writes at Pardon Power, and whose excellent primary-source work Grits has frequently cited. When Washington and Adams were presidents, of course, there were barely any federal convictions they might conceivably pardon! (It took some years for Congress and the states to enact anything remotely resembling functional penal codes, and most prosecutions at the time were brought as private, essentially civil causes of action.) James Garfield, assassinated seven months in, had a good excuse for his low total.

Otherwise, that leaves Barack Obama with functionally the chintziest pardon record among American presidents, at a time when the raft of criminal convictions during the tuff-on-crime era has spawned more pardon requests than ever. Here's a graphic produced by Prof. Ruckman depicting the proportion of pardons given to those requested since WWII by president:


Even George W. Bush appears compassionate by comparison to Obama. "Among recent presidents, George W. Bush had granted 37 pardons and commutations at about this point in his first term. By the end of the year, he had added another 32." Here's Ruckman's depiction of American presidents' historic pardon records before Obama took office:


I don't understand this: Why does the Office of the Pardon Attorney in the Justice Department exist if they consider essentially no one worthy of clemency? How has the President become so dis-empowered on the question that he can't or won't make independent judgments? Perhaps it's true that the role of advising the President on pardon applications should be removed from the Justice Department and handled instead by some appointed adviser or board who understands their job is to recommend pardons. For reasons Grits can scarcely understand, DOJ's Office of the Pardon Attorney seems to think their job is to find excuses to avoid performing the function for which their division was created, and this president more than any other has acquiesced in the trend. As a constitutional scholar in his own right, Barack Obama of all people should know better.

See prior, related Grits posts:

11 comments:

Prison Doc said...

Don't despair, I predict the pardon floodgates will open after the election regardless of its outcome. Right now the campaign is working on its tough guy image.

jimbino said...

I think the graph needs to have % of population or % of prisoners on the vertical axis. The fact that Bush I pardoned about as many folks as George Washington doesn't mean much, since there are a thousand times as many Americans than in Washington's day.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Jimbino, the other graphic captures that a little more, comparing the number of pardons to the number of clemency requests received. And as I said, in Washington's first term, especially, there were basically no federal crimes but treason, no criminal laws, no prosecutors, etc.: Literally there was almost no one available to pardon if he wanted to.

Prison Doc, there's no basis besides partisan cynicism to think that's true. (It is true a widely disproportionate number of pardons are given in December, but compared to the number of requests out there and Obama's record, it's absurd to imagine any "floodgates" will open. Besides, when the guy's ordering the death of American citizens without a trial in drone strikes, being "tough" is hardly just an "image" - that's full-blown strong-man stuff. Ask OBL.

John David Galt said...

Once he's voted out of office, whether it's now or in 2016, then Obama will pardon all his terrorist buddies.

steve said...

Grits,
I've crawled both of your blogs looking for a place to email you, guess I'll use this posting for contact. Just want to say how much I appreciate you bringing the surcharge amnesty program to light in your blog last year. That info was passed via a column in our local paper and I helped get around 10-15 folks legal (one owed $8000+). I have also passed on the info on the two indigency programs I leaned about through reading your blog.
Amazing the lack of publicity of these procedures to afford someone to get legal. Keep up the good work.

mayk said...

I think it's moderate president Obama

RAS said...

Obama is using his knowledge of the constitution to circumvent it's intent not as a guideline for performing his duties.

RAS said...

As for OBL; if Obama gets reelected most of the credit will go to him not stopping the hit on OBL. Do you think the pending election wasn't the pivot point in the discusion of whether to go or not?

TominAustin said...

If you do the crime, expect to spend the time. It would take a long time for him to match Clinton's last minute pardon farce. Keep the perps locked up, they deserve it.

Greg Jones said...

President Ford did not prepare the country for his pardon of former President Nixon. It cost him the 1976 election, and his action gave pardons a bad name. When federal sentencing guidelines went into effect in the 1980's, they meant that sentences imposed thereafter were presumtpively "reasonable", and that also reduced the perceived need for executive clemency. There's also the problem of not appearing "tough on crime."

Anonymous said...

Grits, I can't find it, but the first time I read Obama The Merciless I reached a link to a news site that said O doesn't receive any information on the applicants. Wouldn't this be why he grants so few of them?

Of course it doesn't explain why Bush2 granted at least some pardons. He had to have a program at least as opaque as O does.

How many layers are there again, from applicant to governor or prez?

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Lava