President Obama has accelerated clemency to low-level drug offenders.
Near the start of his second term, President Barack Obama had granted clemency at a lower rate than any president in recent history. He had pardoned 39 people and denied 1,333 requests. He had used his power to commute a prisoner’s sentence just once.
But as Obama enters the final days of his administration, he has dramatically picked up the pace. He’s now issued commutations to 1,176 people since entering office — more than George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan put together. In December, Obama commuted the sentences of 231 people in a single day.
Much of Obama’s increased activity can be attributed to an initiative begun in 2014 to shorten sentences of non-violent offenders who would likely have received less time for their crimes under current law and who had already served at least 10 years of their prison sentences. Low-level drug offenders have received most of the commutations, part of a broader push by the administration to reform sentencing guidelines.
“Historically, clemency has been used to heal national wounds after a war,” said Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota who started the first federal commutations law clinic. “There was a big batch of grants during and after the Civil War, after World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War — and, in a way, Obama is doing it after the War on Drugs.”
While Obama’s commutation numbers have accelerated, they do not, as the White House has put in press releases, exceed those of the last 11 presidents combined, Osler pointed out. Gerald Ford put together a clemency board in 1974 specifically looking to pardon Vietnam War draft dodgers. In just a year, the board reviewed 31,500 petitions and recommended clemency for 13,603.