Blame Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton or any former president who has abused his pardon power and made it politically inconvenient for future presidents to give clemency to those who deserve it.
Blame the career prosecutors in the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) who get the first look at clemency applications-and are predisposed to deny them-before the president even has a chance to weigh in.
Or blame President Barack Obama directly for not taking the power to pardon as seriously as he should, as some prisoner advocates argue.
No matter where the blame lies, the fact remains that the people who need executive clemency the most are the least likely to get it, particularly from Obama.
The White House announced on December 17, 2014, that Obama had granted clemency to too few who have long deserved it. Obama pardoned just 12 people convicted of federal crimes and commuted the sentences of eight others. Of the dozen pardoned, half had been sentenced for their crimes in the 1990s. The other half had-been sentenced for their crimes at least 25 years ago, including two whose cases dated back to the 1960s.
Included among those pardoned was Albert Stork of Delta, Colorado, who was convicted of tax evasion in 1989 after he took money from his fugitive brother for the down payment on a house. As fate would have it, Stork died of brain cancer just two weeks after he was pardoned.
Roy Auvil, a 76-year-old resident of Bartonville, Illinois, was convicted in South Carolina of bootlegging 98 gallons of whiskey in 1964 and sentenced to five years' probation. But he never knew until two years ago that he was "a dang felon," as he described it, when he tried to renew his Illinois firearms owner identification card and it was rejected.
Neither Auvil's prosecutor nor the judge who sentenced him more than 50 years ago objected to his pardon application. They both died in 1993 and 1999, respectively.
"I'm sure he's happy to get a pardon. He deserves a pardon. It's a relatively minor offense, and he's lived an upright life," said Sam Morison, a lawyer specializing in pardons who worked in the Clinton, Bush and early Obama administrations. "But it's not really going to transform his life."
Since 2009, Obama has granted just 64 pardons and 21 commutations. On average, according to USA Today, 23 years have passed between the sentencing date and the day Obama has granted someone a pardon or commutation, which is an all-time high. Too often, those awaiting a pardon don't receive one until later in life, or-as in Stork's case-when their death is imminent.
Critics of the executive clemency process say presidents in recent decades have either granted clemency only to their cronies or, as is the case with Obama, have become overly cautious about clemency and picked only the oldest and safest cases-such as Auvil's-in which to issue pardons and commutations.
"'Safe' is being nice. I would say almost irrelevant. The people who are being pardoned are people on Social Security," said P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political scientist who tracks clemency trends on the blog Pardon Power. "The people who need pardons are young and need to establish themselves and get a job, get a Pell grant and go to college."
Obama's total pardons since 2009 places him behind George W. Bush over the same period of time. In fact, according to Ruckman, Obama has issued fewer pardons than any president since James Garfield, who served just 199 days in office, and fewer than any two-term president since George Washington.
One reason, according to some scholars, is the perceived abuse of the pardon by previous presidents. Ford pardoned fellow Republican and former President Richard Nixon of his crimes in the Watergate scandal. On his last day in office, Clinton pardoned fugitive financier Marc Rich after Rich's ex-wife donated more than $200,000 to Democratic causes.
To depoliticize the clemency process, DOJ's Office of the Pardon Attorney pores over hundreds of applications every year and presents the president with its own recommendations. But DOJ's prosecutorial disposition presents its own problems.
For instance, a DOJ internal investigation found that former President George W. Bush's pardon attorney withheld information about a commutation that he opposed.
"They churn out a steady stream of no," Morison said. "That doesn't mean that the president has to do what they say. But the president almost always does what (DOJ) recommends, even when he doesn't agree with what (DOJ) recommends."
While Obama's pardon numbers are dismal, he has issued more commutations-21 total—than his predecessor.
All eight of the commutations Obama granted in December were given to prisoners who had received harsh and unjust sentences—ranging from 16 years to life—for nonviolent drug crimes. A half-dozen of those had been sentenced under disproportionate drug laws that were first addressed in 2010 when Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the disparity that more harshly punished those convicted of crack possession and sales than it did those using and dealing powder cocaine.
However, the law was not retroactive, requiring Obama to commute the sentences of those prisoners who would have faced shorter sentences if the law had been in effect at the time of their convictions.
In addition to those commutations, three Cuban spies were released early from prison the same day as part of a prisoner swap with Cuba in an effort to normalize relations between the U.S. and the communist island nation.
Sources: www.politico.com, www.whitehouse.gov, USA Today
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