President Obama came to office after bemoaning the disparity in sentences for crack versus powder cocaine offenses, and with a background as a community organizer and constitutional law teacher that had some progressives anticipating a robust use of the Constitution’s “reprieves and pardons” power.
But Obama has never come close to matching those expectations, leaving him open to criticisms from progressives like MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry that he seemed more willing to pardon turkeys than people.
The 13 pardons and eight clemencies announced by the White House Thursday brought Obama’s total to 52 pardons and nine clemencies, the lowest number for any modern president. (A clemency shortens a sentence being served; a pardon is an official forgiveness of the crime, which restores an individual’s citizenship rights, such as voting.)
Some speculated that during his first term, Obama may have been reluctant to use his pardon power for fear of Republican charges that he was soft on crime. And there was always the risk that a clemency recipient might get in trouble, creating a Willie Horton-style vulnerability during Obama’s re-election campaign.
But as Obama has noted, he doesn’t have to worry about re-election again. Still, the president hasn’t really explained his relatively low number of clemencies and pardons.
In a written statement explaining his action Thursday, Obama did cite the crack/power cocaine discrepancies:
“Three years ago, I signed the bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act, which dramatically narrowed the disparity between penalties for crack and powder cocaine offenses. This law began to right a decades-old injustice, but for thousands of inmates, it came too late. If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society. Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year.
“Today, I am commuting the prison terms of eight men and women who were sentenced under an unfair system.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney didn’t shed much more light. “I would simply say that all of these cases are handled in the ordinary process through the Justice Department. And the Justice Department makes, like — makes recommendations to the president.”
Earlier this year, Attorney General Eric Holder was asked about the president’s relative paucity of pardons compared with his predecessors. “We are at year five, I guess, of eight,” said Holder. “So I would say, hold on.”
There are a lot of people who will have to hold on, however. One estimate is that there are 8,000 people with situations similar to those whose clemencies were announced Thursday.