December, a traditional season for presidential clemency, has come and gone, and still Obama has granted just one commutation (which shortens a prisoner's sentence) and 22 pardons (which clear people's records, typically after they've completed their sentences). Barring a last-minute flurry of clemency actions, his first-term record looks weaker than those of all but a few previous presidents.
Which of Obama's predecessors managed to make less use of the clemency power during their first terms? According to numbers compiled by P.S. Ruckman Jr., a professor of political science at Rock Valley College in Rockville, Ill, just three: George Washington, who probably did not have many clemency petitions to address during the first few years of the nation's existence; William Henry Harrison, who died of pneumonia a month after taking office; and James Garfield, who was shot four months into his presidency and died that September.
With the exception of Washington's first term, then, Obama so far has been stingier with pardons and commutations than any other president, especially when you take into account the growth of the federal penal system during the last century, the elimination of parole, the proliferation of mandatory minimums, and the concomitant increase in petitions. This is a remarkable development for a man who proclaims that "life is all about second chances" and who has repeatedly described our criminal justice system as excessively harsh.
As an Illinois state legislator in 2001, Obama declared, "We can't continue to incarcerate ourselves out of the drug crisis." As a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2007, he lamented that "we now have 2 million people who are locked up ... by far the largest prison population per capita of any place on earth." He worried that "there does seem to be a racial component to some of the arrest, conviction, prosecution rates when it comes to these (drug) offenses," saying skewed criminal penalties are "not a black or white issue" but "an American issue," since "our basic precept is equality under the law."