Why Has Obama Pardoned So Few Prisoners?

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Sasha Abramsky in The Nation:

While in the White House, Bill Clinton pardoned well over 100 people. So did President Bush. To date, Obama has pardoned less than two dozen and commuted even fewer sentences. His first commutation wasn’t until late November 2011, when, according to CBS News, he ordered the release of a woman who had served ten years of a twenty-two-year sentence for cocaine distribution. CBS reported that “the latest numbers from the US Pardon Attorney show that since taking office Obama has denied 872 applications for pardons and 3,104 for commutations of sentence.” A year later, ThinkProgress reported that the only presidential pardon granted in 2012 was for the lucky turkey, as part of the Thanksgiving tradition.

A president who talks the talk about more sensible, nuanced drug policy, and whose oratory frequently invokes what is best in the American political imagination, has shown himself remarkably reluctant to use one of the most important of presidential prerogatives—the power to right judicial wrongs. “This president,” says Anderson, “has been unbelievably timid and disinclined to do justice in cases that scream out for commutation. There’s not a lot of moral or political fortitude in play.”

On January 5, The New York Times ran an editorial calling on the president to exercise his pardon power—while also pointing out that the Justice Department, too, “has undermined the process with huge backlogs and delays, and sometimes views pardons as an affront to federal efforts to fight crime.” The Times also blamed Ronald Rodgers, the lawyer who runs the Office of the Pardon Attorney and has obstructed the process, and argued that his office should be replaced with “a new bipartisan commission under the White House’s aegis, giving it ample resources and real independence.”

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