President Obama has made criminal justice reform an important cause during his presidency. In an effort to mitigate the effects of tough-on-crime policies of the past, he has commuted the sentences of 306 people with the latest tranche of 58 announced today (May 5). In total, he shortened the sentences of more people than the last six US presidents combined. But on pardons, which in contrast to commutations fully forgive a crime, wiping an individual’s slate clean, he has been exceptionally merciless.
As a Washington Post op-ed pointed out in March, Obama’s 70 pardons is the lowest number since John Adams—so two centuries ago. His White House has denied 1,629 petitions for pardon, which is more than five out of the last six presidents. The notorious inefficiency of the pardon attorney’s office surely does not help with crime forgiveness, but something deeper may be at play.
Last year, Jeffrey Toobin at The New Yorker offered a possible explanation:
The orderly mind of Barack Obama appears to recoil at the vulgar world of pardons. The President is a consummate rationalist, a believer in systems and order. Pardons, in contrast, rely exclusively on the whim of the grantor. This Presidential power is descended from the concept known in Great Britain as the royal prerogative of mercy—three words that seem almost guaranteed to offend this President, singularly or especially aligned together.