New clemency statistics just posted on the Pardon Attorney’s website show that almost 1000 petitions for full pardon were filed in FY 2016, and that more than 1900 pardon petitions are presently pending. We have become accustomed to seeing huge numbers of commutation filings, but the large number of pardon filings is much more surprising in light of President Obama’s meager pardon grant rate to date. The 998 petitions filed in the 12-month period just concluded are almost twice the number filed in any single year since the Roosevelt Administration, including in the analogous period in the Bush 43 presidency. We reported in August that there were 1378 pardon petitions pending in June – which means that 550 new petitions must have been filed in less than 4 months. That’s as many pardon petitions as have been filed in any full year in the past 75 years.
In August we reported on President Obama’s stated intention to grant a large number of full pardons before the end of his term, in addition to sentence commutations: “I would argue that by the time I leave office, the number of pardons that we grant will be roughly in line with what other presidents have done.” But to match even George W. Bush’s 189 pardon grants, President Obama will have to grant more than 120 pardons in the next three months.
White House Counsel Neil Eggleston stated yesterday that the number of commutation grants since 2014 “make clear that the President and his administration have succeeded in efforts to reinvigorate the clemency process.” But without action on the pardon side of the clemency docket it is too early to claim more than partial success.
USA Today has published a White House document detailing President Obama’s policy on granting clemency, including both sentence commutation and post-sentence pardons. In a memorandum dated July 13, 2010 to the Acting Deputy Attorney General, White House Counsel Robert Bauer “convey[ed] the President’s views” on the exercise of his constitutional pardon power, affirming traditional standards but emphasizing that there are “certain offenses for which a pardon should very rarely, if ever, be granted absent truly exceptional circumstances.” Among these were “large-scale drug trafficking” in which the applicant had “a significant role,” and financial fraud cases involving “substantial loss to the federal government or its programs.”
The memo affirmed the five-year eligibility waiting period for a pardon, overriding a 2001 policy of the Bush Administration (also published for the first time) that imposed an informal 10-year waiting period. At the same time, it emphasized that the passage of additional time may strengthen an applicant’s case for pardon: Read more
For the third time in six weeks, President Obama has spoken on the record about his intention to make more “aggressive” use of his pardon power in the final months of his term to commute long drug sentences. It appears he really means it — and the only thing that may stop him from setting a modern record (perhaps even more impressive than the drug commutations of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson) is the pace of recommendations coming from the Justice Department via Clemency Project 2014. (Comments on his other recent statements are here and here.)
Hopefully the President will grant more full pardons as well, though his comments on that score have been less encouraging.