The holiday season brings time with family, the joy of giving and receiving gifts, and special treats. It is also a time when the president and governors have often used their clemency powers to issue pardons, which remove the legal consequences of a conviction, or to give commutations, which reduce sentences. Unfortunately, for decades now, the president and state governors have been Scrooge-like in their use of both pardons and commutations, even though they have never been more needed.
Consider the patterns at the federal level. For most of our Nation’s early history, clemency grants were routine. Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes and Herbert Hoover each approved more than 1,000 clemency requests in their single terms in office. Between 1892 and 1930, 27% of the applications received some grant of clemency. President Nixon granted 36% of the clemency requests made to him, giving more than 900 people a pardon or commutation. Beginning in the 1980s, however, clemency rates began to fall dramatically. The grant rate fell to 12% with Ronald Reagan, 5% with George H.W. Bush, 6% with Bill Clinton, and 2% with George W. Bush. Even with a concerted effort to focus on clemency, President Obama managed only to achieve a clemency grant rate of 5%, not even achieving a rate half as robust as President Reagan’s already meager 12%.
President Trump had a mere 2% grant rate, and most of his grants were to reward political allies and cronies. He ignored thousands upon thousands of people who lacked such connections, but who are serving excessive sentences that deserve to be commuted. At the end of Trump’s time in office, there was a backlog of almost 14,000 petitions that had never been acted upon.