By Sarah Smith
Near the start of his second term, President Obama had granted clemency at a lower rate than any president in recent history. He had pardoned 39 people and denied 1,333 requests. He had used his power to commute a prisoner’s sentence just once.
But as Obama enters the final days of his administration, he has dramatically picked up the pace. He’s now issued commutations to 1,176 people since entering office — more than George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan put together. In December, Obama commuted the sentences of 231 people in a single day.
Much of Obama’s increased activity can be attributed to an initiative begun in 2014 to shorten sentences of non-violent offenders who would likely have received less time for their crimes under current law and who had already served at least 10 years of their prison sentences. Low-level drug offenders have received most of the commutations, part of a broader push by the administration to reform sentencing guidelines.
“Historically, clemency has been used to heal national wounds after a war,” said Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota who started the first federal commutations law clinic. “There was a big batch of grants during and after the Civil War, after World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War — and in a way, Obama is doing it after the War on Drugs.”