Jacob Sullum

Brian Ison had no gun; he was just in the wrong place (his methamphetamine dealer's mobile home in Harrodsburg, Ky.) at the wrong time (during a 2001 bust). Witnesses said they thought they had seen Ison help cook meth, but he insisted he was only a customer. Turning down a plea agreement that would have resulted in a two-year sentence, the 19-year-old was convicted of manufacturing and received a sentence similar to those imposed on the two cooks who ran the operation: 11 years, three months.

Alexander Hamilton said the president's clemency power should provide "easy access to exceptions in favor of unfortunate guilt," without which "justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel." The future Supreme Court justice James Iredell likewise warned that "inflexible adherence" to the law "might frequently be the cause of very great injustice."

President Bush, who in other areas has been quick to assert broad authority, even when its constitutional basis is questionable, has been strangely reluctant to exercise a power that is indisputably his in the manner the Framers envisioned. So far he has been much stingier with clemency than any of his recent predecessors, except his father.

Bush is averaging 18 acts of clemency a year, compared to 57 for Clinton, 19 for George H.W. Bush, 51 for Reagan, 142 for Carter, 164 for Ford, 168 for Nixon, 237 for Johnson, 192 for Kennedy, 145 for Eisenhower, 264 for Truman and 301 for FDR. With less than 18 months left in his presidency, this is one area where Bush has room to improve and can still leave an admirable legacy.


Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
 
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