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Number of Presidential Pardons Declining

In spite of a rising number of requests, presidential pardons have become virtually non-existent under the George W. Bush administration. During his first two years in office Bush neither granted any pardons nor commuted any sentences. On December 23, 2002, Bush finally issued pardons to seven people who had been convicted of non-violent federal crimes and had completed their sentences.

According to Justice Department statistics, a record 2,105 people convicted of federal crimes sought clemency between January 2001 and December 2002. All told, Bush has rejected close to 2,700 pardon and sentence commutation applications, some of which were submitted during the Clinton administration.

The President's power to grant clemency to anyone convicted of a federal crime derives from Article III of the U.S. Constitution. The president can free prisoners, reduce sentences, forgive fines and grant full pardons, including the restoration of all rights, without the approval of Congress or the courts.

Historically, Democratic Presidents tend to use their clemency powers more liberally than Republicans. President Truman granted more pardons than any other post-World War II president. From 1945 to 1953 he issued 2,044 pardons, commutations and fine reductions. Presidential acts of clemency plummeted after Reagan, who vowed to get tough on criminals, took office in 1981.

They have been declining ever since. Reagan averaged 4.2 acts of clemency per month during his term in office, down from the 12 per month Carter issued. The senior President Bush averaged 1.6 acts of clemency, Clinton 4.8. The average for George W. Bush is .03.

Washington Attorney Margaret Colgate Love, who headed the Justice Department's pardons office from 1990 to 1997 says, "Pardons have become captive to the war on crime. They aren't being used as they were intended, as a check on the judicial system and in a larger symbolic way, to show that redemption and rehabilitation are possible in society."

Bush's reluctance to grant clemency may be due in part to the furor created over his predecessor's last minute pardons. In particular, Clinton was sharply criticized and even rebuked by the House of Representatives' Government Reform Committee for his pardon of fugitive businessman Marc Rich, who had heavily contributed to the Democratic Party and Clinton's legal defense fund.

Clemency numbers are not likely to be on the rise anytime soon. During his 6 years as Texas Governor, Bush presided over 152 state executions, but commuted only one death sentence. With the approval of a state board (required by Texas law) Bush committed the death sentence of accused serial killer Henry Lee Lucas to life in prison. Lucas later died in prison.

Source: USA Today

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