Skip to main content

President Obama, the merciless?

By P.S. Ruckman, Jr.
updated 7:03 AM EST, Tue December 31, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Obama has granted 52 pardons to date; George W. Bush granted almost 200
  • P.S. Ruckman: Obama is one of the least merciful presidents in U.S. history
  • He says Christmas pardons may seem warm and fuzzy, but it makes them seem like a gift
  • Ruckman: Instead of last minute pardons, politicians should grant pardons regularly

Editor's note: P.S. Ruckman, Jr. is professor of political science at Rock Valley College and editor of the Pardon Power blog. He is the author of the forthcoming book, "Pardon Me, Mr. President: Adventures in Crime, Politics and Mercy."

(CNN) -- This month, one of the least merciful presidents in the history of the United States granted 13 pardons and eight commutations of sentence. The grants moved President Barack Obama's overall mark past the administrations of John Adams (who served only one term), William H. Harrison (who died of pneumonia after serving only 30 days), James Garfield (who was fatally wounded by an assassin after serving only four months) and George Washington.

The New York Times complained that, when it came to the pardon power, there was just "no excuse" for Obama's "lack of compassion" and encouraged him to "do much more." The American Civil Liberties Union called the pardons "a step" and hoped the President would "continue to exercise his clemency powers." Meanwhile, the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, lamented the "drought" of pardons in the Obama administration and called the recent grants "mingy and belated." Conservative columnist Debra Saunders wrote that it was "about time" Obama acted, and even tossed out the possibility/hope that he might "do it again soon."

While it is true that Obama's grants included no one comparable to Scooter Libby, or Marc Rich, much less President Richard Nixon, the intensity and commonality of reactions is noteworthy. Political executives -- presidents and governors -- may not be quite aware of or in tune with it just yet, but the times, they are a-changing.

P.S. Ruckman, Jr.
P.S. Ruckman, Jr.

No one is clamoring for violent criminals to be yanked out of prisons and tossed into the streets to wreak havoc on society. No one is lusting for the considered judgment of judges and juries to be whimsically overturned by politicians leaving office and, in the process, sidestepping accountability.

But, increasingly, there is recognition that budgets are tight, and prisons are both overcrowded and expensive. The recidivism of those who spend time in prisons and exit without anything like serious rehabilitation is also costly. Congress' recent recognition of the failure (if not outright unjust nature) of sentencing laws appears, to many, as still yet another indicator that there is consensus regarding the status of the so-called war on drugs: It has not worked out very well.

Judges have complained loudly about mandatory minimum and three-strikes laws which have limited their ability to tailor punishments to fit crimes -- a basic notion of justice. Public opinion polls also suggest Americans are increasingly uncomfortable with over-criminalization in the law.

The pardon power will always carry an inherent political "risk," because no one can perfectly predict the future behavior of recipients and everyone's judgment can be second-guessed, if not mischaracterized. Informed persons know Mike Huckabee did not "pardon" Maurice Clemmons and Michael Dukakis did not "pardon" Willie Horton. But, of course, executives cannot always survive political storms with the support and encouragement of informed persons.

Nonetheless, the Founding Fathers considered the pardon power an integral part of our system of separation of powers and checks and balances. Its presence in the Constitution is premised on the notion that Congress and the Courts are not always perfect. Anyone care to disagree? It simply follows that, if the pardon power is being neglected or abused, then government is not doing what it was meant to do.

Alexander Hamilton furthermore noted, in the Federalist Papers, that the criminal codes of nations have an almost natural tendency toward over-severity. For that reason, he argued, there should be easy access to mercy. Yes, you read that right, "easy access," or, in other words, something very different than what is going on in the Obama administration.

The fortunate thing is, presidents and governors can very easily minimize the political "risk" of pardoning by granting pardons regularly, consistently, throughout terms, as opposed to, very questionably, at the "last minute."

While Christmas pardons may make some feel warm and fuzzy, they also send a message that is more counterproductive than anything. They seem to say mercy is an afterthought, or worse, a gift, that may or may not be deserved.

The fact of the matter is the majority of individual acts of executive clemency in our lifetime have been pardons, which simply restored the civil rights of the recipients. No one was sprung from jail. Violent criminals were not tossed into the streets. Judges and juries were not overturned. Recipients have typically committed minor offenses, many involving no incarceration whatsoever, and usually, many years if not decades before pardon. FBI background checks documented they had integrated back into society as law-abiding productive members. Their pardons were not "gifts" so much as they were well deserved recognition.

Have these pardons been high-wire maneuvers? Have they required presidents to spend precious political capital? Not at all. Obama has granted 52 pardons to date. There is a much better than average chance that readers cannot name a single recipient. George W. Bush granted almost 200.

So, why can't Obama restore the civil rights of more applicants? Why doesn't he? There is no obvious answer to that question, save lack of care and concern. Where is the President who said his religion teaches him the importance of redemption and second chances? Where is the hope?

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of P.S. Ruckman, Jr.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT