President Obama's poor pardoning record

With only 23 pardons to his name, President Obama is on track to free fewer prisoners than almost every other president in American history

Dana Liebelson

Despite recent parallels drawn between U.S. politics and HBO's epic fantasy drama Game of Thrones, the power-hungry, bloodthirsty kings in that fictional realm would actually have quite a difficult time working in the U.S. executive branch. Just imagine their thinking: Checks and balances... huh? Wait, we can't decapitate our staffers? No unlimited expense accounts for wild boar, wine, and prostitutes?! Outrageous!

The kings would, however, share at least one power with the American president: The ability to singlehandedly pardon a convicted criminal.

Pardons allow U.S. presidents to quickly and decisively correct injustices in the legal system by restoring a prisoner's rights — like the right to vote, start a business, and serve on a federal jury. Admittedly, the authority isn't always used that way (just look at the controversial pardon of former President Richard Nixon), but that was the intention of the founding fathers.

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Alexander Hamilton feared that subjecting the pardoning process to popular opinion would poison justice, so he declared: "One man appears to be a more eligible dispenser of the mercy of the government."

Game of Thrones kings wouldn't let advisors stop them from granting justice to a wronged prisoner. They would take matters into their own hands, as Obama should.

Franklin Roosevelt oversaw more pardons than any other president — about 2,800 by the time he finished his 12 years in office. George W. Bush, in contrast, granted fewer than 200 during his two terms. Bush's count seems subterranean in comparison to Roosevelt's, but very few presidents have a pardoning track record as abysmal as President Obama. According to MSNBC, with the historically low number of pardons he's issued during his first term (just 23 so far), Obama is on track to be among "the bottom two or three" pardoning presidents of all time. Additionally, there's growing evidence that the Office of the Pardon Attorney (OPA) — which is responsible for assisting the president by investigating pardon requests and making recommendations — needs serious reform.

It turns out that Hamilton's fears were not without merit — over the last decade, this secretive pardoning office has overwhelmingly favored letting white criminals off the hook, and has bungled at least one review sent to the president, a joint investigation by ProPublica and The Washington Post recently revealed.

Sam Morison, a longtime staff attorney at the OPA , reveals that "the pardon attorney's office says they look at every case carefully, but that's not true... [it] is supposed to give fair, neutral advice to the president. That, in my opinion, has simply collapsed."

Dr. Boyce Watkins, founder of Your Black World Coalition, believes that Obama's disinterest in using or reforming the pardoning process is even damaging his reputation among African American constituents.

"African Americans represent the demographic that is most supportive of President Obama, yet they are the most devastated by the effects of mass incarceration," writes Watkins. "Obama doesn't have time for the black community, even though we are expected to make time to [keep him in] office."

No case better depicts the problems with our current pardoning process than that of Clarence Aaron, an African American college student who had a scholarship to play football in Louisiana. He was sentenced to serve three life-sentences without parole in 1993 — when he was 23 years old. Aaron didn't kill, hurt, or sexually assault anyone. He didn't buy, sell, or supply drugs. Aaron's sentence — for his very first criminal offense— was for helping plan two cocaine deals during the height of the War on Drugs.

No doubt, Aaron's decision was a poor one. What he did was illegal. But it left him with a sentence that, on paper, is harsher than those handed to the Times Square car bomber, Timothy McVeigh's accomplice, and the mob boss of the Gambino crime family. If ever there were a prime candidate for a presidential pardon, Aaron — a model prisoner whose release has been recommended by both his prosecutor and his sentencing judge — should qualify.

But as the ProPublica investigation revealed, the Office of the Pardon Attorney responsible for reviewing these cases left out crucial information when presenting Aaron's application to then-President George W. Bush: Specifically, it failed to fully relay that the prosecutor and judge supported a pardon for Aaron. His application was denied. Kenneth Lee, an attorney who worked under Bush, has said he would have pardoned Aaron if he'd had been given complete information on the case.

There's growing pressure for Obama to take action on Aaron's case — and the pardoning process as a whole. In May, Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.), ranking member of the Committee on the Judiciary, sent the president a letter asking him to investigate ProPublica's allegations, and immediately reconsider Aaron's application for clemency if they prove true. In mid-June, 16 former prisoners who are now pardoned sent a letter to Obama asking him "to investigate credible claims of serious misconduct against the Office of the Pardon Attorney" and also grant more commutations to deserving applicants.

Presidents are more likely to grant commutations at the end of their presidency — which could be why Obama hasn't acted on Aaron's case. However, waiting until the last minute has its own drawbacks. As Bush lamented in his memoir, the torrent of last-minute pardon requests "disgusted" him, because "if you had connections to the president, you could insert your case [without going through the pardon office]. Otherwise, you had to wait for the Justice Department to conduct a review."

Molly Gill, director of special projects at Families Against Mandatory Minimums says, "there are thousands of other people in prison... who have worked hard to rehabilitate themselves and who would lead productive lives in our communities. Getting clemency shouldn't be like winning the lottery. Every prisoner deserves a fair review from this administration's pardon attorney — and the president and the taxpayers who pay his salary deserve it, too."

The kings of Game of Thrones wouldn't let advisors (or in this case, an advising office that needs reform) stop them from granting justice to a wronged prisoner. They would take matters into their own hands. It's time that President Obama does the same.

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