Earlier this month, President Obama made history by commuting the sentences of 214 people in federal prisons. That action, one of the largest exercises of presidential clemency powers since Gerald R. Ford granted pardons to Vietnam draft dodgers and deserters facing prison in 1974, has been hailed by the White House as a sign of Obama’s commitment to clemency.
The White House’s contention that Obama’s 562 commutations are more than the previous nine presidents combined only holds if Ford’s pardons aren’t included in the tally, because they didn’t necessarily reduce sentences. But the benchmark of the last nine presidents is arbitrary, especially in light of statistics showing that presidential clemency was much more common before the Cold War. Woodrow Wilson granted 1,366 commutations and 1,087 pardons. Calvin Coolidge quietly granted 773 commutations and Harding commuted 386 sentences in only two years. Pardons and commutations have dropped precipitously in the past three decades for presidents in both parties. Why?
One organization asking that question is the Dream Corps, a self-described “social justice accelerator” that has spawned the #cut50 initiative to reduce the national incarcerated population by 50 percent over 10 years. Part of that initiative is its new #ClemencyNOW campaign, which aims to persuade the president to issue commutations for thousands of nonviolent drug offenders. Dream Corps president Van Jones told me that the campaign “is our effort to convince the White House they're either gonna have to triple down—not double-down but triple-down—on the resources that they're putting into the clemency process internally or change the process in very significant way to meet their own goals.”