On Mercy, Obama is a Gridlock of One

President Obama likes to complain about gridlock in Washington and blame Republicans for keeping him from doing his job. As president, he has the unfettered executive power to pardon individuals convicted of federal crimes or commute their sentences. Yet, while his 2008 campaign called for a review of federal mandatory minimum sentences to reduce the number of needlessly warehoused nonviolent drug offenders, Obama has pardoned a mere 22 offenders who served their sentences and commuted only one sentence. When it comes to acts of mercy, Obama has produced his own gridlock of one.

Political science professor and Pardon Power blogger P.S. Ruckman believes that no president since John Adams has shown so little interest in exercising the power of the pardon.

Somehow the senator who opposed the waterboarding of self-professed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed has become the president who hasn’t lifted a finger to correct the tortured punishment meted out to Clarence Aaron, when the 23-year-old was sentenced to life without parole for a first-time nonviolent drug offense in 1993 in Alabama. Ditto other victims of draconian federal mandatory minimum-sentencing laws.

Obama’s piddling exercise of mercy baffles liberals. Eric Sterling, who founded the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation to combat the excesses of federal drug laws, helped draft as a congressional aide, noted that his co-believers aren’t asking Obama to free convicted killers posing a threat to society. “There are lots and lots of people who fit the strictest criteria to minimize the risk of re-offending,” said Sterling. Obama could commute the sentences of only nonviolent offenders and mandate supervised release. Or the president could only commute the sentences of inmates with clean prison records and a good word from a prosecutor or judge.

With his re-election secure, Obama has run out of reasons not to commute the sentences of nonviolent offenders. Ruckman expects the president to issue some pardons in December, a holiday tradition, but, “I don’t expect a lot, frankly. I have no reason to expect he’s going to set any records.”

Why has Obama been so stingy with his clemency power? It’s a frequent topic of speculation among pardon watchers. Quoth Ruckman: “I personally think it all started with the choice of Eric Holder (as attorney general). He brought more baggage to the office with respect to pardons than anyone else in history.”

Readers may recall that as a Justice Department official, Holder gave President Clinton cover to pardon big-donor Marc Rich — the gazillionaire who fled the country rather than face fraud and tax-evasion charges. Holder also had a role in Clinton’s decision to commute the sentences of 16 Puerto Rican independence terrorists.

In other words, Holder rewarded a gazillionaire fugitive for avoiding prosecution and helped free unrepentant terrorists for political advantage. But when it comes to using the pardon power to curb the excesses of brutish sentences, Holder has other priorities.

Clarence Aaron can wait. Given his sentence of life without parole, where’s he going to go?

Debra J. Saunders


Debra J. Saunders is a conservative columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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  • klossg

    This is excellent, well thought out reporting/opinion. Obama is two faced and hungry for power. Tis a shame. I actually would love to see people who shouldn’t be in jail, releases so they could have a chance to do something with their lives.

  • kirk

    It seems only a short time ago when the headlines and newspapers opined over a governor in the south pardoning several murderers and violent offenders after only short sentences. it seemed as if the only punishment for a convicted felon in that state to redeem himself was to serve a short time running favors, cleaning, cooking for that same governor who found pleasure in being served raher than to serve – and he rewarded them with unfettered freedom! We yelled, we griped, we hollered – all to little, too late. And now, after those headlines are long consigned to the memories of a few, we hear griping because too few felons are being pardoned. I can’t help but wonder if there had been a republican president, and he pardoned no one at all – what would you say then?
    Haven’t you been informed yet that the election is over? I say – get over it and write something worth reading.

  • Well, I am definitely NOT an advocate of the POTUS, but to be fair, don’t most Presidents pardon the vast majority on the way out of office? Obama still has a full term yet to go (unfortunately). How does he compare with 2-term Presidents at the same point in their terms in office? just wundrin