Jacob Sullum

The following year, Obama told Rolling Stone that making felons out of "nonviolent, first-time drug offenders" is "counterproductive" and "doesn't make sense." Obama's campaign said he believes "we are sending far too many first-time, nonviolent drug users to prison for very long periods of time." It promised he "will review drug sentences to see where we can be smarter on crime and reduce the blind and counterproductive sentencing of nonviolent offenders."

The one significant way in which Obama followed through on this rhetoric after being elected was by supporting 2010 legislation that shrank the irrational sentencing gap between crack cocaine and cocaine powder (although there was not much political risk in doing so, since the bill passed Congress almost unanimously). But the Fair Sentencing Act did not apply retroactively, and Obama has used commutation to help just one of the thousands of crack offenders serving mandatory minimums that nearly everyone now admits are unjust.

More generally, Obama has granted clemency petitions at a lower rate than all of his recent predecessors. The odds of winning a pardon from Obama so far are 1 in 59, compared to 1 in 2 under Richard Nixon, 1 in 3 under Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, 1 in 5 under Ronald Reagan, 1 in 10 under George H.W. Bush, 1 in 5 under Bill Clinton, and 1 in 13 under George W. Bush, per Ruckman's calculations. The odds for commutation are even longer: 1 in 6,631 under Obama, compared to probabilities under the seven preceding presidents ranging from 1 in 15 (Nixon) to 1 in 779 (Bush II).

As Obama embarks upon a second term, he deserves credit for this amazing accomplishment: He has made Richard Nixon look like a softie.


Jacob Sullum

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