Will Obama pick up the pace on pardons in his 2nd term?

Opinion

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(Getty Images)

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President Obama pardoned a turkey for Thanksgiving, but will he do the same for people in his second term?

On a recent edition of her MSNBC show, Melissa Harris-Perry raised the issue of Obama’s stinginess when it comes to executive acts of mercy.  A presidential pardon is the power of the nation’s chief executive to nullify a conviction for a federal crime.  Governors issue pardons for state crimes. A pardon gives a person a new lease on life, allowing him or her to vote, obtain licenses and work in certain professions, for example.

During his first term in the White House, the president has pardoned a mere 2 percent of those who applied (22 pardons and 1,019 denials), which translates to 1 in 47, the lowest rate of any president in recent memory.  And all of those pardoned had already served their time.

According to ProPublica, at this time in their respective presidencies, George W. Bush had pardoned 1 in 33 people, while Clinton had pardoned 1 in 8, George H.W. Bush had pardoned 1 in 16, and Reagan had done so in 1 out of every 3 cases.

Similarly, President Obama lags way behind his predecessors in commutations, the power to reduce the sentence of a convicted person.

There is a case to be made for an uptick in pardons during Obama’s final four years. Now he is unencumbered by the need to campaign for reelection, and does not risk being painted as soft on crime.  Other presidents have used the pardon power more liberally after their reelection.

Perhaps with November 6 under his belt — not to mention a huge victory over Mitt Romney and arguably a mandate to do his thing – this will liberate Obama to liberate others, so to speak.

There are other issues competing for his attention, including immigration reform, the so-called fiscal cliff, cabinet nominations and others, but the issue of pardons could help Obama leave his mark on criminal justice reform.

However, a major stumbling block is the pardons process itself.  Presidents rely on recommendations from the Office of the Pardon Attorney, which is a part of the Department of Justice.

The problem is that these days, the office recommends to reject the vast majority of applicants.  Further, the process is rife with injustice, as applicants with congressional support are three times more likely to receive a pardon, whites four times more likely to be pardoned than applicants of color, and blacks the least likely to catch a break from the president.

Voices on the left and the right have called for a reform of the system.  The Open Society Foundations support a Gerald-Ford-style pardon board to address racially disparate drug sentencing, and the Heritage Foundation’s Paul Rosenzweig advocates for a removal of the pardons process from federal prosecutors who don’t like to admit their mistakes.

Surely the president knows what is at stake.  During his first run for the office, Obama vowed to look at mandatory minimum sentences “to see where we can be smarter on crime and reduce the ineffective warehousing of nonviolent drug offenders.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. claims the world’s largest prison population — due in part to draconian, out-of-control, drug-war-driven sentencing — and leadership in the use of the death penalty. There’s lots of punishment in the land of the free, too much even, but is there justice? Something’s gotta give.