As his daughters and others watched on Wednesday, President Obama followed long-standing tradition and pardoned two turkeys in honor of Thanksgiving Day. The 40-pound Butterballs, Courage and Carolina, were flown to California and will live out their days at Disneyland.
Unfortunately, Obama has failed to follow another tradition of sitting presidents: granting clemency to humans.
Under the Constitution, the president has the power to pardon offenders, by which he forgives crimes and restores civil rights or commute sentences. But no humans have received presidential forgiveness since Obama took office 10 months ago. Only four other American presidents have waited longer to use their pardon power after taking office: George Washington, John Adams, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
To be fair, it's not entirely Obama's fault. The advent of "tough on crime" politics in the 1980s and a few controversial clemencies since then (think Marc Rich and Lewis "Scooter" Libby) have made pardoning a political minefield.
Guarding the entrance to that mine field is the Office of the Pardon Attorney. It reviews clemency requests and sends recommendations to the attorney general, who helps the president make final decisions about which offenders are worthy of mercy.
For nearly a century, this review-and-refer system ran smoothly, and presidents typically approved hundreds of petitions for clemency each year - mostly to run-of-the-mill, politically unconnected people.
But the system has broken down. The Office of the Pardon Attorney's small staff is overburdened - this year alone it has received more than 1,200 clemency requests. Beginning with the Clinton administration, the number of clemency applications has soared and shows little sign of dwindling. Applicants report filing their clemency petitions and never receiving a reply. Applications often sit in the pardon attorney's office for years before they are, inevitably, denied. George W. Bush granted a paltry 200 pardons and commutations - more than twice the number granted by his father but less than half the number granted by Clinton. Forty years ago, by the end of Lyndon B. Johnson's administration, almost 1,200 people had received the benefit of clemency. We've come a long way, but not in the right direction.
Obama may have the power to grant clemency, but he can't use that power effectively unless the Office of the Pardon Attorney gives applicants a meaningful review and recommends worthy cases to the White House.
Executive clemency has too many valid and important purposes to disappear through lack of use. Clemency gives hard-earned second chances to those who have turned their lives around. It can fix the errors that inevitably crop up in our imperfect criminal justice system. Clemency can show mercy to elderly, sick or dying prisoners who aren't a threat to public safety. And clemency restores valuable rights to people still struggling to find jobs because of foolish mistakes they made years ago.
None of these praiseworthy objectives can be met until Obama takes a hard look at the pardon system and fixes it.
This year, the clemency score is turkeys, 2; humans, zero. By this time next year, I hope that the clemency score favors more humans than turkeys.
Molly M. Gill is director of the commutations project for Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
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