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Cora Currier: Despite New Pardons, Obama’s Clemency Rate is Still Lowest in Recent History

March 7, 2013

The president has exercised his pardoning power less frequently than his four immediate predecessors.

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Image from Flickr via Thomas Hawk

By Cora Currier
By arrangement with ProPublica

On Friday, President Obama pardoned seventeen people. But despite the new pardons, the Obama administration has still granted clemency more rarely than any president in recent history.

Obama has now granted a total of thirty-nine pardons and denied 1,333.

Indeed, the day before the pardons were announced, a Department of Justice spokesman said, Obama had denied 314 other applicants.

A ProPublica analysis of Justice Department statistics last November found that Obama had granted pardons at a lower rate than Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, or George W. Bush had at the same point in their administrations.

Obama has now granted a total of thirty-nine pardons and denied 1,333.

The people pardoned on Friday—including a mother of two in Honolulu who had faced the possibility of deportation due to a 1996 conviction and a fishing company executive who went to prison in 1991 for a bid-rigging scam—will not have their records wiped clean. But pardons do allow convicted criminals to restore their rights to vote, buy firearms, and open up other opportunities closed to them by their records.

The president also has the power to commute sentences—a privilege Obama has used only once.

Pardons are largely processed based on recommendations from the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney. As we reported in November, recommendations in favor of pardons have been rare during Obama’s presidency.

The president also has the power to commute sentences—a privilege Obama has used only once.

After ProPublica and the Washington Post detailed the commutation case of Clarence Aaron, the Justice Department’s inspector general criticized the pardon attorney, Ronald L. Rodgers, for failing to convey key information about the case to the White House.

The report concluded that Rodgers 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.”

Our 2011 investigation of pardons data from 2001 to 2008 also found that whites were four times as likely to be pardoned as minorities, prompting a Justice Department study.

Cora Currier was previously on the editorial staff of the New Yorker. She has written for the New Yorker’s website, The European, Let’s Go guides, and other publications. During the 2008 presidential election, she covered the youth vote for The Nation. She has also worked as a researcher for several books on history and politics. Cora graduated from Harvard College with a degree in Social Studies.

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