Among the many year in review stories we saw in 2012, one that might have escaped notice is Obama’s atrocious and yes, unpardonable, clemency record . Thanks to Professor Ruckman over at the Pardon Power blog, he has compared Obama’s record of pardons and communications with that of other presidents, and the results are truly one for the record books, and not in a good way. The more interesting question, of course, is why Obama hasn’t been more generous with exercising his pardon power. In the unlikely event that one is able to get Obama to discuss this in candor and on record, we may never know. But we can certainly guess. Here are some of my hypotheses:
(1) Criminals are increasingly becoming a permanent underclass: this has as much to do with the racial composition of the group of individuals who are most in need of executive clemency (either for employment or public benefits) — they are without question mostly black — as with the economic and personal backgrounds of these same individuals — they are overwhelmingly poor and have few or no individuals to whom they can turn for economic or emotional support.
(2) Compassion for the “criminal” is politically unpopular and potentially toxic: this should come as no surprise. It matters not whether you are the nicest most well meaning person in the world, qualities some have ascribed to our current president. If you are an elected figure, you will avoid politically unpopular acts. Forgiving someone for their past criminal conduct is one such act. And it becomes even more unpopular when tragedies like the Newtown/Sandy Hook shooting occur and the shooter is portrayed as both a criminal and a freak; he is almost certainly neither.
And we should ask ourselves this question: when was the last time our lawmakers floated a legislative proposal whose primary purpose was to improve the lives of ex-offenders and the communities in which they reside? I am not talking about changes to unjust sentencing laws or reducing prison populations, all of which are important in their own way but do nothing to keep people out of prison; I refer instead to proposals that are meant to create communities that are strong and cohesive and provide their members with zero incentive to think about let alone engage in criminal acts. But such bold initiatives might very well be a thing of the past. This is especially true when those most in need of help are the least visible, based on the size of their bank accounts and the color of their skin. Hell, we cannot even get our president to exercise his pardon power, and he needs neither Congress’s approval nor its input to do it.
I was reading a neighborhood newsletter the other day and came across a Q & A column with someone who works at a nearby homeless shelter. In addition to its tradition function as place of respite for the homeless, the shelter also provides education, job and housing-related support for the down and out. Services that are more important now than ever with the country in its second worst economic decline since the Great Depression. Real solutions for folks with real issues.
This makes one wonder why efforts of similar utility and foresight cannot be implemented on a more systemic level. Especially by those who do little else but profess their affinity for the American people. President Obama and his use, or, more aptly, disuse, of his presidential pardon power comes to mind here. According to a recent New York Times report:
In the months since the end of the 2010 fiscal year, the Obama administration reduced the backlog [of clemency applications] substantially by denying nearly 4,000 petitions while granting 17 pardons. The first nine of those were granted last December, barely avoiding a record set by President George W. Bush for the longest wait for a president’s first pardons.
Here is a chart published by the Pardon Power blog comparing Obama’s clemency record with that of other Presidents:
President Days before First Commutation of Sentence
Obama 1,004 … and counting
H.W. Bush 206
Ford (s) 61
Truman (s) 54
Johnson (s) 30
If there’s anyone who really needs a second chance of sorts it is an ex-offender with a conviction on his or her record. As I have mentioned previously, society has increasingly little tolerance for anyone who has had any kind of run-in with the law, whether it’s an arrest for shoplifting or a conviction for robbery. Aside from depriving individuals of jobs on the basis of something that has very little if anything to do with their ability to actually do good work, this two-tier system [i.e., those with clean records and those with criminal histories] increases the racial and socioeconomic stratification that has led to anger and unrest around the country (as seen in the Occupy Wall Street movement and its cross-continental progeny). That such an issue fails to attract the attention of those in Government is not a surprise. Prisoners and arrestees do not have a lobby in Washington as far as I am aware. But ignoring the country’s prison and ex-offender population, as Obama has been doing through his disuse of the pardon power, carries with it far greater risks in terms of social inequality and public dissatisfaction.