On pardons, Obama could go down as one of the most merciless presidents in history
By GEORGE LARDNER JR. and P.S. RUCKMAN JR.
George Lardner Jr., a former Post reporter, is scholar in residence at American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop. P.S. Ruckman Jr. is a professor of political science and editor of the Pardon Power Blog.
When the Obama administration’s new acting pardon attorney, Bob Zauzmer, arrived on the job last month, he ran headlong into a backlog of more than 9,000 clemency petitions awaiting a decision on whether they deserve the president’s consideration. Many of those petitions were the byproduct of the announcement of Clemency Project 2014, which was established by the Justice Department — to great fanfare — to process additional applications from federal prisoners seeking reductions of unjustifiably long drug sentences.
Zauzmer has his work cut out for him — it has been widely reported that his predecessor, Deborah Leff, stepped down in January over frustrations with a lack of resources.
Was the administration ever serious about Clemency 2014? The rules for commutation requests even reaching the overburdened pardons office under the initiative are inexcusably discouraging. The worst is that inmates must have served at least 10 years of their sentence. Other rules state they must not have “a significant criminal history” (whatever that means); they must be nonviolent, low-level offenders; and they must be serving a sentence harsher than they would have gotten if convicted of the same offense today. Those who fall “outside of this initiative,” according to the Justice Department, can still seek clemency under the old rules if their applications are “especially meritorious.”
The results of this great, unprecedented effort? Obama has a clemency record comparable to the least merciful presidents in history. He has granted just 70 pardons, the lowest mark for any full-term president since John Adams, and 187 commutations of sentence. Meanwhile, 1,629 pardon petitions have been denied (more than five of the previous six presidents), as well as 8,123 requests for commutations (a new record). An additional 3,444 requests have been “closed without presidential action.”
Obama’s record is all the more deplorable because of assurances that he has made and that have been made on his behalf. On April 21, 2014, then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. encouraged federal prisoners to seek relief, noting that, despite sentencing reforms Obama signed into law in 2010, there were “still too many people . . . sentenced under the old regime” who needed attention. Holder said the White House had “indicated” that it wanted to “consider additional clemency applications to restore a degree of justice, fairness, and proportionality for deserving individuals who do not pose a threat to public safety.” In addition, the Justice Department was “committed to recommending as many qualified applicants as possible for reduced sentences.” Clemency Project 2014 has, however, become a bureaucratic disaster, assigned to volunteer lawyers and law students with little if any experience in the pitfalls of dealing with the federal criminal justice system.