"The office of the presidency -- the most powerful position in the world -- brings with it many awesome and solemn responsibilities. This is not one of them."
So begins President Barack Obama's speech at the traditional Thanksgiving turkey pardon. This year, the president pardoned both the turkey Popcorn and his alternate Caramel, allowing them to escape a dinner-time death sentence and to live the rest of their lives as free birds on George Washington's estate.
For some, the annual presidential turkey pardon is a light-hearted tradition. For others, it makes a mockery of an important presidential power -- one that seems to be meted out sparingly by the current President of the United States. Call me cynical, but I fall into the latter category.
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm sure the turkeys (and PETA) are extremely grateful for the president's grace. But while Popcorn the Turkey was granted a presidential "full reprieve from cranberry sauce and stuffing," 24-year-old Clarence Aaron spent another Thanksgiving behind bars, failing to receive any relief from his life sentence for a first-offense non-violent drug conviction. As a criminal defense attorney, all the light-heartedness of the annual "celebration" goes out the window when you put that in perspective.
Article II of the United States Constitution grants the president the power to provide clemency to those convicted of crimes, stating, "The President . . . shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment."
Typically, this clemency is shown through a pardon, which forgives a person's conviction and restores his or her civil liberties, or commutation, in which a convicted person's sentence is abbreviated or vacated. Don't get it twisted; such an act isn't akin to an expungement or a repeal of guilt. It is merely a showing of mercy and a restoration of many of the constitutional rights an individual loses once he or she is convicted of a felony.
One would think President Obama's clemency power should be good news to convicted drug offenders, particularly in light of Attorney General Eric Holder's assertion that the president shares his belief that current drug sentencing is too harsh, and that the federal government will stop prosecuting low-level drug offenders, focusing instead on drug trafficking empires. In theory, this should leave nonviolent, low-risk offenders to the states' prosecutors.
But despite President Obama's turkey pardon speech urging "compassion for those in need," his presidency has been marked by a dearth of compassion and mercy for those serving long sentences for minor drug crimes.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, nearly 2,000 people are serving life sentences in federal prisons for nonviolent offenses. Although President Obama supposedly opposes overly harsh sentencing for nonviolent offenders, he has neglected to wield his clemency power to provide relief for those already sentenced.
The number of pardons granted by any president can vary widely. Two presidents -- William H. Harrison and James Garfield -- granted no pardons during their terms; however, to be fair, both men died shortly after taking office and likely didn't have the chance to do so. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the only president to serve three terms, granted 3,687.
Barack Obama, a year into his second term, has granted 39. With the exception of Harrison and Garfield, whose deaths pre-empted any pardons, only George Washington, John Adams, and Zachary Taylor have granted fewer pardons than Barack Obama, with 16, 21, and 38, respectively.
Compared to modern presidents, Obama's low rate of pardon is much more staggering:
- John F. Kennedy - 575
- Lyndon B. Johnson - 1,187
- Richard M. Nixon - 926
- Gerald Ford - 409
- Jimmy Carter - 566
- Ronald Reagan - 406
- George H.W. Bush - 77
- Bill Clinton - 456
- George W. Bush - 176
Of course, those numbers just reflect pardons. To truly see the measure of mercy, we can look at the number of commuted sentences the president has granted. Commutations are reductions in a sentence. Given Obama's alleged concern over what Eric Holder calls "draconian" sentencing, it stands to reason that the President would exercise his power to commute some of those long sentences for low-level offenders such as Clarence Aaron.
So how many commutations has President Obama granted? Any guesses?
Eugenia Jennings is the only recipient of a commuted sentence by President Barack Obama. At the age of 18, she was sentenced to 22 years in prison for her third drug offense after selling crack to a federal informant. President Obama commuted the sentence from 22 years to 10, and Jennings was released from prison in 2011. She died in October of this year, less than two years after her release.
In 2010, Barack Obama signed The Fair Sentencing Act. That same year, he denied 605 petitions for commutation of sentence.
Thus far, he has approved sentence commutation at a rate of 1 in 5,000. Despite his proclamations of fairness and compassion, he has granted clemency to exactly one person and denied it to thousands. Consequently, it has become a very short conversation whenever I receive a phone call from a potential client inquiring about a presidential pardon or commutation: better luck next term, buddy.
Certainly, pardoning turkeys can't be counted as one of the "awesome and solemn responsibilities" of the Office -- but granting clemency is. For the thousands of nonviolent offenders spending decades in prison, Obama's actions -- or inaction -- speak louder than his words.