His first nine pardons, on December 3, 2010, mainly went to people who had received probation or short prison terms for minor offenses and drug-related crimes. [See: PLN, May 2011, p.36]. At that time, the Office of the Pardon Attorney had received 4,614 clemency petitions, most of which remained pending.
Obama’s sole commutation was issued on November 21, 2011 to Eugenia Marie Jennings, 34, a mother of three from Illinois who pleaded guilty in 2001 to selling less than 14 grams of crack cocaine. Jennings, who had been diagnosed with cancer and was receiving treatment at a medical prison in Texas, was released in December 2011. She still must serve 8 years on supervised release.
Jennings’ brother, Cedric Parker, had testified before a U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee in 2009 that his sister was a drug addict, alcohol abuser and victim of sexual assault who was trying to provide for her children. He noted that she would have received a prison sentence approximately half as long had she been convicted of selling powder rather than crack cocaine.
FedCURE, a chapter of National CURE (Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants) that advocates for federal prisoners, and a persistent critic of the crack-cocaine sentencing disparity that was only recently addressed by Congress, welcomed the news of Obama’s first commutation – albeit three years into his first term.
In a statement, Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), said that “Eugenia Jennings’ 22-year sentence for her nonviolent offense was overkill. Today, President Obama rights that wrong and we are grateful to him. We urge the President to continue to exercise his clemency power and grant more commutations to the many deserving federal prisoners, like Eugenia, who have paid a hefty price for their mistakes and deserve a second chance.”
Margaret Love, a former U.S. Pardon Attorney, also said she was pleased with the president’s first commutation. “I hope that it is a sign he intends to look at the many other people in federal prisons serving very long crack sentences which his own administration has called unjust.” But Love was critical about the dearth of pardons and commutations, stating that Obama’s exercise of his pardon power “really does appear to be a bit random, like a lightning strike.”
Unfortunately, at the time this issue of PLN goes to press, the president’s clemency lightning has not struck any other current or former prisoners since he commuted Jennings’ sentence in November 2011.
In fact, Obama has issued fewer pardons and commutations than any other president in modern history. Former president George W. Bush granted clemency 200 times during his two terms in office, while Bill Clinton issued 459 pardons and commutations. George H. Bush pardoned 77 people; Ronald Regan granted clemency 406 times. Obama has issued the least number of pardons since James Garfield was president in 1881 – mainly because Garfield was assassinated within 7 months of taking office, and thus didn’t have time to pardon anyone.
“These are people who completed their sentences, who have since led good lives and are asking [the Obama] administration for a second chance and this administration is turning its back on them,” said Mary Price, FAMM’s vice president and general counsel. “I cannot believe there are fewer deserving people today than there were during the administrations of his predecessors.”
President Obama has not, however, completely ignored his pardon powers over the past year. On November 21, 2012 he pardoned Cobbler and Gobbler, two turkeys, as part of a holiday tradition. Cobbler was selected as the National Thanksgiving Turkey, while Gobbler was an alternate in case Cobbler could not “fulfill his duties.” The pair of lucky birds will live at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens instead of being served up for dinner.
“They say that life is all about second chances...” Obama said upon issuing the Thanksgiving pardons. “So in the spirit of the season, I have one more gift to give and it goes to a pair of turkeys.”
Although a humorous holiday tradition, some people were not amused by the president pardoning turkeys while thousands of clemency applications from current and former federal prisoners remained pending.
“It is fair to say two things,” said P.S. Ruckman, Jr., a political science professor at Rock Valley College in Illinois. “One is [Obama] is definitely being exceptionally stingy [with pardons]. There’s no doubt about that. There’s also no doubt that this is in a way unexpected.”
The president’s reluctance to issue pardons and commutations is surprising because many people thought he would be more progressive on criminal justice issues. Obama had criticized mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses during his presidential campaign, and in August 2010 signed into law the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced (but did not eliminate) the long-standing powder vs. crack cocaine sentencing disparity.
In a recent interview with TIME Magazine, which named him Person of the Year for 2012, Obama said, “...there’s a big chunk of that prison population that is involved in nonviolent crimes. And it is having a disabling effect on communities ... I think we have to figure out what are we doing right to make sure that that downward trend in violence continues, but also are there millions of lives out there that are being destroyed or distorted because we haven’t fully thought through our process?”
Yet while expressing concern about criminal justice issues and the “millions of lives” negatively affected by our nation’s prison system, Obama apparently doesn’t care enough to do anything about such problems himself by commuting the sentences of deserving federal prisoners. Pardoning Thanksgiving turkeys is apparently a greater presidential priority.
The Office of the Pardon Attorney serves as the gatekeeper for federal pardon and commutation applications, and the current U.S. Pardon Attorney, Ronald L. Rodgers – a former prosecutor – rarely makes favorable recommendations. According to the Pardon Attorney’s office, pardons are granted “on the basis of the petitioner’s demonstrated good conduct for a substantial period of time after conviction and service of sentence.”
The presidential pardon process has faced controversy beyond the small number of pardons issued under the Obama administration. In December 2011, ProPublica, an independent, non-profit investigative news agency, reported that white applicants were almost four times more likely to receive pardons as minorities. According to sample data from 494 pardon applications during the George W. Bush administration, 12 percent of white petitioners and 10 percent of Hispanics received pardons while no blacks in the sample were pardoned.
An analysis that included variables such as type of offense, sentence, gender and even marital status “did not eliminate the strong influence of race on getting a pardon,” according to ProPublica’s research.
“I’m just astounded by those numbers,” said former U.S. Pardon Attorney Roger Adams. He shouldn’t have been, though.
In 2008, Adams stepped down and was replaced amid allegations of racial bias, retaliation and mismanagement based on a report by the Office of the Inspector General, which cited Adams’ “belief that an applicant’s ‘ethnic background’ was something that should be an ‘important consideration’ in a pardon decision.” [See: PLN, Nov. 2008, p.31].
As a result of ProPublica’s reporting, the U.S. Department of Justice has since announced that it will conduct a study of presidential pardons to determine if minorities are “less likely to progress in the pardon adjudication process than applicants of other races.”
Beyond race, socioeconomic status may also play a role in determining who receives a pardon and who doesn’t. Former White House Counsel Gregory Craig noted that pardons were “clearly much more available to people with economic means than those without.”
Paul Rosenzweig, a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation who worked in the Department of Homeland Security during the Bush administration, has suggested removing the pardon evaluation process from the Justice Department.
“Moving the office outside of the Department of Justice would restore the pardon function to its traditional status as an exercise of pure presidential authority,” he stated.
That, at least, may shift the president’s focus from pardoning turkeys to giving serious consideration to the thousands of clemency applications filed by current and former federal prisoners.
Sources: www.politico.com, Huffington Post, http://uspolitics.about.com, www.pardonresearch.com, www.usnews.nbcnews.com, www.aclu.org, www.justice.gov/pardon, www.propublica.org, CNN
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