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The Flip Side to Obama's Historic Clemency Push: A Stinginess with Pardons

By Tuesday, when Obama announced what could be his last clemency grants, Obama had issued a record number of commutations and just 212 pardons.
Image: President Barack Obama speaks to the media after having lunch with formerly incarcerated individuals who have received commutations, at Bus Boys and Poets restaurant on March 30, 2016 in Washington, D.C.
President Barack Obama speaks to the media after having lunch with formerly incarcerated individuals who have received commutations, at Bus Boys and Poets restaurant on March 30, 2016 in Washington, D.C.Kevin Dietsch / Pool via Getty Images

Last August, while touting his unprecedented effort to grant early release to long-imprisoned drug offenders, President Obama was asked why he hadn't been so generous to people seeking pardons.

At that point, Obama was approaching the record for commutations, but had granted fewer pardons than just about any president in history — a mixed record for a president who has championed the power of second chances.

Obama asked for patience.

"By the time I leave office, the number of pardons that we grant will be roughly in line with what other presidents have done," he told reporters.

So far, he hasn't come close.

Related: Inmates Hope for Last-Ditch Shot at Obama’s Clemency Program

As of Tuesday afternoon, when Obama announced what could be his last batch of clemency grants, Obama had issued 212 pardons — acts of forgiveness that do not signify innocence but remove barriers to an array of civil rights, such as voting, obtaining professional licenses, buying a gun and, for non-citizens, avoiding deportation.

That's the least of any president since the late 1900s, with two exceptions: George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.

Some lawyers and scholars see that record as a lost opportunity.

Margaret Love, who served as the U.S. Pardon Attorney under George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and who now represents dozens of ex-offenders who've applied for pardons, said the demand was higher than ever. Obama received nearly 1,000 pardon petitions in fiscal year 2016, the most in 15 years, according to Justice Department statistics.

The spike, she said, is due to some of the same factors that inspired Obama to boost commutations: decades-old tough-on-crime policies that swept thousands of people into prison on epic mandatory-minimum sentences.

At the same time, a post-9/11 rise in criminal background checks made it harder for people who'd gotten out of prison to rebuild their lives, Love said. "No matter how old the offense, no matter its nature, you are stigmatized," Love said.

The White House and Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.

In 2014, after six years of being stingy with clemency, Obama put out a call for nonviolent offenders who were sentenced to prison before some of those sentencing laws were eased in 2010. That triggered a deluge of commutation petitions and set the stage for Obama's historic act of mercy: 1,385 commutations so far, the most by any president in history.

But the commutation initiative forced the Office of the Pardon Attorney to set aside thousands of petitions for pardons, along with commutations that didn't fit Obama's criteria. As the backlog mounted, Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff resigned in January 2016, saying a lack of resources prevented her from doing the job effectively.

Obama only seemed to come around to pardons in August, when he vowed to give them more priority.

The result was 78 pardons in December, and another 64 on Tuesday.

P.S. Ruckman, Jr., a political science professor who writes a blog about pardons, said the power is "a great American tradition and part of our system of checks and balances" that maintains the spirit of Alexander Hamilton, who wrote of the need for "easy access" to mercy.

And pardons are nowhere near as politically risky as commutations, Ruckman said. Rather than setting a prisoner free early, pardons are given to people whose sentences ended years ago, and have proven themselves as upstanding citizens.

"Obama should have been granting them by the thousands," Ruckman said.

The president has until Friday to add to the list.