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President Obama 'stingy' on pardons, says clemency expert

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President Barack Obama greets guests during a Cinco de Mayo reception in the Rose Garden at the White House on Thursday.

President Barack Obama is on track to be one of the least forgiving of presidents in U.S. history — as measured by his use of presidential pardon powers, according to a political science professor who blogs about clemency exercised by presidents and governors.

"It is fair to say two things," said P.S. Ruckman Jr., who teaches at Rock Valley College in Rockville, Ill. "One is (Obama) is definitely being exceptionally stingy. There’s no doubt about that. There’s also no doubt that this is in a way unexpected."

As president, Obama has pardoned 23 people, including one commuted sentence, in his first 40 months in office. Barring a dramatic flurry of clemency from the White House in the coming eight months, Obama will be among the bottom two or three presidents for granting pardons in his first term, Ruckman said. That puts him in the running with Presidents George Washington, John Adams and James Garfield, who was assassinated after serving less than seven months.

While campaigning for office, Obama was critical of the mandatory minimum penalties for drugs, especially those that specified much heavier sentences for those using crack cocaine than to the ones associated with more expensive powder cocaine.

Mandatory minimums, which emerged in the 1980s, are partially responsible for swelling federal prison populations — to 218,261 on the week of May 3, compared to 24,363 in 1980, according to government documents

In April 2010, the president signed into law the Fair Sentencing Act, which aimed to even out the mandatory minimums, which critics say are discriminatory to African Americans.

But Obama did not — as some expected or hoped — go on to throw open the doors for large numbers of people incarcerated under the old mandatory sentences.

Instead, most of the president’s acts of clemency — about half of them for drug-related offenses — have followed a pattern that has changed little since President Eisenhower.

"The great majority of activity that goes on today is pardons — typically for old, minor offenses, and minor sentences. All it does is restore (the convicted person) their rights — so they can vote, carry a gun to go hunting,” Ruckman said. "Arguably they are most often given to the people who need them the least."

Single commutation for drug sentence
In fact, most people who are pardoned have not served any jail time. In Obama’s case, that was true of 12 of the 23 people he pardoned. All but one of the others had long since been released.

See Ruckman's chart of pardons by president
See Ruckman's chart of pardons by presidential term

That one exception came on Nov. 21 — the president’s most recent use of his pardon powers — when he commuted the sentence of Eugenia Marie Jennings, 34, who had served about half of her 22-year prison term for a cocaine distribution offense. She got out in December, with eight years of supervised release.

In a statement then from the nonprofit Families Against Mandatory Minimums, president Julie Stewart urged Obama "to continue exercising his clemency power and grant more commutations to the many deserving federal prisoners, like Eugenia, who have paid a hefty price for their mistakes and deserve a second chance."

Obama could step it up in the last quarter. Historically, presidents do tend to grant more pardons in the fourth quarter of each year, especially the fourth quarter of the final year in the term, Ruckman said.

Among recent presidents, George W. Bush had granted 37 pardons and commutations at about this point in his first term. By the end of the year, he had added another 32.

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The odds of being granted clemency have become much tougher over the years, with applications climbing into the thousands per year, and presidents awarding fewer of them, as illustrated in this graphic from the Department of Justice.

Second-term flurry?
Obama may also be reserving acts of clemency for his second term, if he gets one. 

Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both granted many more pardons in their second terms than they did in their first. Clinton famously — and controversially — pardoned 120 people in his final hours in office, including his half-brother Roger Clinton who had already completed a sentence for drug charges, and Marc Rich, a fugitive millionaire who was living in Switzerland and was wanted in the United States on tax evasion charges.

But none of these recent presidents comes close to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the use of pardon power. He granted about 600 pardons and commutations by the end of his first term, and about 2,800 over the course of his historic 12 years in office (1933-1945) before the two-term limit went into effect. 

But even among modern presidents, Obama's current pace keeps him firmly among the most conservative American presidents to use these powers of forgiveness.

The average age of individuals pardoned by Obama is about 61, according to Ruckman and the average time between the original sentence and executive clemency granted by this president is 24.3 years. 

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