1/17/2011

By Tom McKay

President Obama’s recent completion of what has become the farcical yearly tradition of presidential pardons for turkeys merely added a morbid statistic to an area of growing concern in the criminal justice community: Turkeys pardoned – 4, People pardoned – 0. Seeking to add humor to the proceedings, Obama described the turkey pardon as one of his “awesome” responsibilities as President. Sarcastic though he may have been, the President would be well advised to remember that one truly awesome responsibility he has is “to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States” – to people, that is.

Despite once praising the value of “empathy” in potential Supreme Court justices, President Obama has shown little of it in denying 71 pardon petitions last month. As many as 1,287 pardons are pending. Commentators have called on Obama to use his authority to counteract unjust sentences created by policies such as the formerly 100-to-1 crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, or certain mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. Obama’s failure to respond to these appeals is increasingly the norm for modern Presidents, however. Statistics from the U.S. pardon attorney show a steady decline in the number of pardons granted since 1945 – from 1,913 by Harry Truman to only 189 under George W. Bush. A host of factors may play into this trend, but it seems clear that the political utility of being “tough on crime” is undoubtedly a driving force behind it.

The fewest pardons of any modern President, just 74, were handed out by George H.W. Bush. Perhaps not coincidentally, he was propelled into office in part by his opponent Michael Dukakis’ support for a Massachusetts furlough program which resulted in the release of convicted murderer Willie Horton, who committed rape while on furlough.  President Obama’s failure to grant any pardons is likely the result of a political calculation – that he simply cannot afford his own Willie Horton. But to failing to pardon deserving prisoners in justified cases because of political self-interest is irresponsible. President Obama has not been shy about taking political risks before. He should carefully consider the pardon applications recommended to him by the pardon attorney, and not be afraid to grant them where clemency is justified.