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.
During a Town Hall in South Carolina on March 6, President Obama spoke for the second time in recent weeks about his intention to use his pardon power more generously in the final two years of his term.
Responding to a criminal defense attorney who asked what she could do to “increase the number of federal pardons,” the President explained that he was taking a “new approach” to pardons after receiving surprisingly few favorable recommendations from the Justice Department during his first term. He said he had asked the Attorney General to “open up” the pardon process, and to work with advocacy groups and public defenders to make people more aware of the availability of this relief:
We were struck by this recent headline: “Gov. McAuliffe makes pardon from hospital, where he will remain overnight.” The Virginia governor was recuperating from a procedure to drain his lungs made necessary by a holiday fall from a horse, when he called reporters to his hospital room to witness a grant of “conditional pardon” (Virginia’s term for a sentence commutation) to an autistic man jailed for assaulting a police officer, to permit him to go to a secure treatment center in Florida for help rather than being warehoused for years in a Virginia prison. It is likely that McAuliffe wanted to show himself fully able to conduct state business. But it seems significant that he chose this particular official act to make the point.
The bookend episode that immediately comes to mind is Bill Clinton’s well-publicized departure from the campaign trail in 1992 to fly home to Arkansas to sign Ricky Ray Rector’s death warrant. Rector had shot himself in the head after murdering a police officer and was effectively lobotomized — and so unable to appreciate his circumstances that he asked to save the pecan pie from his last meal for “later.”
There may be no more telling sign that the “soft of crime” label is losing its power over elected officials than McAuliffe’s decision to publicize this bedside act of mercy.