Harry S. Truman pardoned his first prisoner eight days after taking office. In contrast, Mr. Obama waited 682 days into his presidency before using his power, and even then he did so sparingly, almost trivially. Even now, well into the fifth year of his presidency, he has pardoned only 39 people, 25 of whom had been sentenced only to probation. —Sanford Levinson
Following a tradition first set by John F. Kennedy, President Barack Obama will pardon a turkey this Thanksgiving. Human beings should be so lucky, notes Ron Fournier at National Journal.
No president since George Washington has been so stinting with the presidential pardon and commutation power. Fournier tells the story of Weldon Angelos, given an effective life sentence for a nonviolent gun possession charge.
"Angelos was sentenced in 2004 to 55 years' imprisonment for possessing a firearm in connection with selling small amounts of marijuana," Fournier writes. "He didn't brandish or use a weapon, nor did he hurt or threaten to injure anybody. And yet the father of young children and an aspiring music producer was given an effective life sentence because of a draconian federal law requiring mandatory minimum sentences."
Fournier notes that the Judge Paul G. Cassell called the sentence "cruel and irrational" and issued the sentence under protest: "While I must impose the unjust sentence, our system of separated powers provides a means of redress," Cassell said.
That means of redress is the presidential pardon and commutation power. Neither President George W. Bush nor President Obama, to date, has seen fit to use it in this case of obvious injustice.
Pro Publica has published a troubling series of in-depth report on the stingy pardon record of the Obama administration.
Among the cases highlighted is that of Clarence Aaron.
"He has been in prison since 1993 when he was sentenced to three life terms for his role in a drug deal. Aaron was not the buyer, seller, nor supplier of the drugs. It was his first criminal offense," Pro Publica notes.
Sanford Levinson, a law professor at the University of Texas, sounded the same theme this week in a letter to the New York Times.
"Harry S. Truman pardoned his first prisoner eight days after taking office," Levinson wrote. "In contrast, Mr. Obama waited 682 days into his presidency before using his power, and even then he did so sparingly, almost trivially. Even now, well into the fifth year of his presidency, he has pardoned only 39 people, 25 of whom had been sentenced only to probation."
Levinson makes a key distinction, one easily missed. While Wikipedia keeps an ongoing list of presidential pardons, one must dig deeper to see the impact these might have had. The complexion of these statistics changes when most of those pardoned have served no time, or are not serving it when the pardon is issued.
Radley Balko noted recently at the Huffington Post that the root of the problem may be the U.S. Pardon Attorney Ronald L. Rodgers, who was appointed by President George W. Bush shortly before he left office.
"He's been there ever since," Balko wrote. "Prior to 2008, Rodgers spent 10 years working as a drug warrior, first as a prosecuting attorney for the Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section of the Justice Department's Criminal Division, then as director of the Drug Intelligence Unit of the Criminal Division."