Obama's Stingy Pardons

More talk than action.

Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

President Barack Obama granted 78 pardons earlier this month, doubling the total for his presidency -- and ensuring that it will not go down as the least forgiving in more than a century. Instead, it will probably end up as the second-least forgiving.

It’s a strange legacy for a president who has spoken so eloquently about the need for a more fair and rational criminal-justice system. It’s also a missed opportunity to notch a small victory for another issue the president is passionate about: voting rights.

Number of Presidential Pardons
Pew Research Center

There are 50,000 people released from federal prisons each year, and many return to states that either permanently bar them from voting or require them to apply for restoration of their rights. Most of these felons don’t deserve pardons, of course; only 3,000 have applied. And most ex-offenders without voting rights have committed state, not federal, crimes.

None of this should stop Obama from issuing pardons in deserving federal cases.

There are other ways for the president to show clemency besides pardons. A commutation, for example, reduces a prisoner’s sentence. Obama has commuted the sentences of more than 1,000 inmates -- more than the last 11 presidents combined, a statistic the administration is fond of citing.

A less heralded statistic is that Obama has received far more applications -- some 31,000 -- than his predecessors. The reason is simple: He invited federal prisoners to apply. A frequent critic of the nation’s harsh sentencing laws, he is the first president to organize an official clemency initiative to address the issue.

As it turns out, a clemency initiative is not a very good way to address the issue. For every commutation Obama has granted, he has denied 14 others. Of the 190,000 federal prisoners, Obama has reduced sentences for only about six-tenths of 1 percent. So far at least, Obama has found relatively few federal prisoners deserving of mercy.

The truth is that, as the data has shown all along, reducing prison populations -- a worthy goal -- is a lot harder than it sounds. Obama deserves credit for bringing attention to the challenge and supporting some sentencing reforms that have helped address it. Unfortunately, his record has not matched his rhetoric.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.