As Barack Obama begins his second term as President of the United States, one can only hope that he will reconsider his apparent unwillingness to grant clemency to some of the more than two million men and women presently incarcerated in our prisons and jails. His record for granting pardons and commutations ranks him as one of the stingiest, least compassionate men ever to have held the office of President and Chief Executive.
Indeed, only George Washington, William Henry Harrison, and James Garfield used their constitutional clemency power less than President Obama did in his first term in office, according to P.S. Ruckman, Jr. of Rock Valley College in Illinois. Washington probably had little call for clemency in the infancy of the nation, when the prison system was scattered and unformed. Harrison died of pneumonia in his first month in office, and Garfield was shot four months into his term and later died. President Obama has granted twenty-two pardons and one -- one -- commutation as he enters his second term. By contrast, Jimmy Carter granted clemency 566 times. Bill Clinton 459 times. Even George W. Bush, derided as cruel and uncaring by many on the left, pardoned, commuted, or rescinded the sentences and convictions of 200 men and women during his presidency.
journalist Dafna Linzer reports that President Obama's record on considering commutation applications, where a reduction in sentence is the goal, is a dismal one. "Under Reagan and Clinton, applicants for commutations had a 1 in 100 chance of success. Under George W. Bush, that fell to a little less than 1 in 1,000. Under Obama, an applicant's chance is less than 1 in 5,000."
So what is the cause of the President's reluctance to grant clemency? The answer is not clear. One factor might be Pardon Attorney Ronald L. Rodgers, who has held that post since 2008. The Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General released a report in December, 2012, that found that Mr. Rodgers, the official responsible for investigating and making recommendations to the president in such matters, had failed to convey key information to President Bush in one notable case, and that he had "engaged in conduct that fell substantially short of the high standards expected of Department of Justice employees and the duty he owed the President of the United States." Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz referred his findings to the Deputy Attorney General for possible "administrative actions" against Mr. Rodgers. Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. has not publicly commented on the case, but Mr. Rodgers remains as President Obama's advisor as to clemency matters. We may never know why President Obama has refused to grant clemency at a rate comparable to his predecessors. This was not what comes to mind when one remembers his campaign slogan, "Change we can believe in."
What we do know is that President Obama was elected via a campaign that promised hope and change, promising renewed attention to America's oppressed and downtrodden populations. During his second inauguration speech, he surprised and delighted many by referencing America's LGBT populations, by equating Stonewall and Selma, a shout-out that seemed consistent with the ideals of equality and compassion that led many to vote for him in the first place. America's prison population -- which, again, includes more than two million men and women -- could certainly use some of the same attention. There are more Americans in prison than any time in our history, and our rate of incarceration exceeds that of any other nation on the planet.
A Buddhist friend of mine tells me that when President Obama took the oath of office in 2009, he wore under his coat a ceremonial scarf, given to him by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, whom Obama would soon join as a fellow Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. Ironically, one of the Dalai Lama's first orders given when he ascended to the leader of Tibet was "free the prisoners," granting general clemency to all. While such an act is not possible in our complex society, the contrast is a bit striking. Who would have guessed that Barack Obama could go down in history as our least compassionate president?
It's not too late, Mr. President. There is still hope for change, change we can believe in.