The president had just issued 17 pardons -- the first pardons of his second term. That's merciful, right? Except that though Obama rightly used his clemency power to wipe clean the criminal records of 17 individuals who had served their time -- that's what a pardon does -- to raise his total pardons to 39, he has used that power to commute only one sentence.
In the context of the 1980s and 1990s, when federal prosecutors went overboard trying to put minor drug traders away for hard time, the president's record is disappointing.
In the context of sequester cuts -- as the Department of Justice warns it will have to cut $338 million from the prison budget, which could lead to the furlough of 37,000 prison employees for two weeks and lockdowns to reduce violence -- his record is both harsh and foolish. And he knows it.
On Dec. 12, when Time magazine interviewed Obama for its 2012 "Person of the Year" piece, Obama mentioned a New York Times story that ran that day about Stephanie George, a nonviolent offender sentenced to life without parole when she was 27. Her federal judge described George's criminal role as "a girlfriend and bag holder and money holder but not" an active drug dealer as he lamented a federal mandatory-minimum-sentencing system that forced him to sentence George to life against his better judgment.
When Time reporters asked the president whether he would push for alternative sentencing, Obama brought up the George story as he noted that social scientists were looking for "smarter, better ways -- and cheaper ways" of sentencing nonviolent offenders. It makes sense for them to do so, Obama said, but: "I think this is one of those things where I don't think you should anticipate that I'm leading with an issue like this." It's not on his to-do list.
Julie Stewart of Families Against Mandatory Minimums is appalled. She thinks the president should look at nonviolent drug offenders who have served 20 years and are in their 40s and ask: "If they have served 20 years and are in their 40s, what are we doing keeping them there until they die? These are not people who are dangerous to society."
Then there's Clarence Aaron, who is serving life without parole for a first-time nonviolent drug offense in 1993. The Washington Post/ProPublica reported that Obama's pardon attorney failed to inform predecessor George W. Bush that Aaron's U.S. attorney and judge no longer oppose a presidential commutation -- yet Obama keeps him on the job.
Why hasn't Obama commuted Aaron's sentence? Some in the criminal justice community offer up this hopeful excuse: He has so much on his plate.
Nonsense. The Department of Justice has staff members whose job is to review clemency applications. It is their job to vet petitions and recommend commutations for worthy inmates. If they do their job right and save their recommendations for inmates with no violent history and good prison records, there is little political downside.
But if the president doesn't want to take any risk in the exercise of mercy, he should be honest and furlough the pardon staff permanently. Then, at least, the president could spare federal prosecutors and counterterrorism operatives from furloughs.
By the way, the pardon power is the rare executive power Obama can exercise unilaterally. Mercy is a fine concept, but if an action does not fan the flames of partisan rancor, this president cannot be bothered.