By Christopher Zoukis
With two more batches of sentence commutations granted in October, President Obama now holds a couple of records in that area.
By issuing commutations for 102 federal inmates on Oct. 6, followed by 98 more on Oct. 27, he set the record for commutations in a single year. His total for 2016 reached 688 – more in a single year than any other president. A few months earlier, on Aug. 3, he also claimed the all-time single-day record by issuing 214 commutations.
Thus far in his presidency, Obama has handed 872 federal inmates shorter sentences, second only to the 1,366 commutations total issued by Woodrow Wilson, mostly after World War I. Since the White House says the president will continue to issue meritorious commutations through the rest of his term, Wilson’s record could yet be broken.
But when it comes to another, broader form of clemency – issuing full presidential pardons – the administration has made far less of a mark. As of the first week of October, Obama had issued only 70 pardons since taking office. That’s well behind the pace for presidential pardons by his other two-term predecessors: Bill Clinton issued 396; Ronald Reagan granted 393; and George W. Bush handed out 189. In fact, as of this writing, Obama has granted the fewest presidential pardons of any two-term president since George Washington.
Commutations shorten sentences but do not affect post-release restrictions, such as parole or restrictions on the right to possess firearms. A significant number of the Obama-issued commutations have been conditioned on inmates enrolling in residential drug treatment before being released – which led one inmate to refuse to accept his commutation. Full pardons, on the other hand, bring full legal forgiveness, effectively wiping out record of a crime.
Several factors may help to explain Obama’s relative lack of attention to pardons. First, ever since the administration announced its new clemency initiative in mid-2014, commutations have virtually monopolized its clemency efforts. If you don’t count pardons handed to four Iranians as part of a prisoner exchange earlier this year (which go through a different process than pardons for federal inmates), Obama has only granted two pardons since December 2014.
The administration could argue it had no choice but to focus almost exclusively on commutations, since its clemency initiative, as well as retroactive changes in federal sentencing guidelines for some drug offenses, produced a huge wave of commutation applications — over 29,000, by official records. Another possible reason is that pardons may have become politically more suspect, due to historic situations like President Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush’s pardons of figures in the Iran-Contra scandal, and Bill Clinton’s issuing 140 pardons on his final day in office, including one to a fugitive financier whose former wife was a major contributor to the Democratic party.
The imbalance between sentence commutations and pardons may be about to end, however. Fielding a question on the disparity at an August news conference, Obama acknowledged his administration had “focused more on commutations than… pardons," but said that by the time he leaves office, he will have issued pardons “roughly in line” with the numbers granted by other presidents.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.