President declares U.S. a “nation of second chances” but issues no pardons

In commuting the sentences of 46 individuals serving long drug sentences, President Obama declared that America is a “nation of second chances” in a video address posted on the White House website.  But that sunny optimism about our country’s willingness to forgive hasn’t led him to grant very many pardons, the relief whose purpose is to restore rights and status to those who have fully served their sentences, to give them a second chance at first class citizenship.  Indeed, as Michael Isikoff reported the same day the commutations were issued, Obama’s 64 pardons are the fewest issued by any full-term president since John Adams.  Indeed, the President has commuted more in the past six months than he has pardoned in his entire time in office.

The President’s determination to reduce unjustly lengthy prison sentences is commendable and historically significant.  But it need and should not lead him to the neglect the other part of the clemency caseload, the petitions filed by individuals who have led exemplary lives for many years but are still burdened by severe collateral consequences and the stigma of conviction. Unfortunately those petitions appear to have have been shunted to the back burner in the excitement of the so-called “clemency initiative.”

As exemplified by the case of Sala Udin described in Isikoff’s article, deserving pardon applicants have seen their petitions languish for years in the Office of the Pardon Attorney. These days pardon investigations are not progressing past the intake stage, and it is very hard to find out what the hold-up is.  It is tempting to fault the Justice Department for the glacial pace of pardoning, but in truth it is the President’s agenda that controls.

A presidential pardon is the only relief from collateral consequences available to those convicted of federal offenses.  Expungement is not authorized by any federal statute, and most federal courts have held that they have no inherent authority to issue this kind of relief.  A more definitive answer to that question may come with the government’s appeal of Judge John Gleeson’s recent expungement order.

But until that legal question is settled, and legislation either enacted or found unnecessary, we must hope that the President will expand his view of “second chances” beyond the prison gates to the communities where those who are burdened by a criminal record live and work.


Margaret Love

Margaret Love is CCRC's Executive Director. A former U.S. Pardon Attorney, she represents applicants for executive clemency in her private practice in Washington, D.C.. She is lead co-author of Collateral Consequences of Criminal Conviction: Law, Policy, and Practice (4th ed. 2021), and served as an advisor to the ALI Model Penal Code: Sentencing.

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