Pardon Me, Mr. President, But That’s Dishonest
Apr. 1, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — White House counsel, Neil Eggleston, announced March 30th that President Obama has commuted the sentences of 61 federal prisoners serving time for drug-related offenses. Twenty-three of the convicts whose sentences were commuted had been sentenced to life imprisonment. The overwhelming majority was convicted of possessing or conspiring to possess cocaine with intent to distribute.
Most were sentenced fifteen to twenty years ago. Robert Lee Lane, the prisoner furthest into his sentence, was given life in prison on May 03, 1990 for dealing cocaine. By the time his newly commuted sentence expires, he will have spent 26 years behind bars.
In his blog post, Eggleston goes to great lengths to praise Obama for his supposed commitment to clemency. His post features a celebratory bar chart touting the number of commutations Obama granted compared to his predecessors. Eggleston claims Obama has been more generous with commutations than the six previous Presidents combined.
This statement is, strictly speaking, true. It is also enormously misleading. To understand why, we need to take a look at the President’s clemency powers.
The President receives his power of executive clemency from Article II, Section 2 of the US Constitution, which allows him to grant “Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” (Thus, a president cannot pardon himself or his cronies if they face expulsion from office.) His authority to grant clemency only extends as far as federal convictions; state governors have similar powers over state offenses.
Commutations of sentence fall into the category of reprieves. To have your sentence commuted is to see it reduced, either partially or completely. However, a commutation goes no further than that. It doesn’t change the fact of the convicted person’s legal guilt or erase the conviction. Nor does a commutation lead to the restoration of the convicted person’s civil rights, including the rights to vote and bear arms, in the event she was convicted of a felony.
Pardons are a much more powerful remedy because they almost completely reverse the ill effects of a conviction. If the pardoned person was still serving his sentence, he’s released from prison. If he forfeited his civil rights, he gets them back. In fact, this is currently the only way to have Second Amendment rights restored after a federal felony conviction.
Though a pardon overwrites a conviction and the consequences of legal guilt, it doesn’t mean that the pardoned person is factually innocent. On the contrary, pardons are usually granted to convicts who accept their guilt and show remorse. As “expressions of a president’s forgiveness,” they are, however, intended to help combat the stigma of a conviction.
So how does Obama stack up against his predecessors in terms of pardons? Very poorly. He’s granted fewer than any other president, and far fewer than most – the only president to approach his level of parsimony is one-termer George H.W. Bush. To make matters worse, Obama’s pardons-plus-convictions tally is lower than that of any president save Bush Junior and Senior.
Again, this is without accounting for the fact that Obama has had two terms to bulk up his numbers. Proportionally, even Richard Nixon pardoned 1107 people and commuted 77 sentences in the time it took Obama to pardon 70 and commute 248.