- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

This President Day’s weekend, the national celebrates the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s. Among the many facets of Lincoln’s leadership that are being lauded, there is one that will probably be overlooked: his clemency record.

Lincoln granted almost 400 pardons and commutations (sentence reductions) in just four years in office - about two grants of clemency each week. He gave them to draft dodgers, deserters and common criminals. He spared Southern sympathizers and mistreated Indians - hardly well-liked constituencies at the time. He issued an amnesty for Confederate soldiers as a signal to Congress it was time to put differences aside and heal the nation’s war wounds. Lincoln also had a weakness for weeping mothers who, in those days, could walk right into the White House and beg for mercy for their sons at the president’s knee.

Today it is not so easy to get a clemency plea into the White House, and it is much harder to get one granted. Thousands of federal prisoners file for clemency each year and go through the Justice Department’s lengthy, bureaucratic and prosecutor-controlled review process, where their applications are rejected for lack of an in-road to the White House.

The need - and demand - for clemency is greater than ever. Federal prisons are operating at 40 percent over capacity, due largely to mandatory minimum sentences that force judges to send nonviolent, low-level, or first-time drug offenders to prison for decades. With no parole and limited time off for good behavior, clemency is the only way out of excessive 10-, 15-, 20-year or even life sentences. Unforgivably, most presidents respond to the increased demand for mercy by either neglecting the pardon power or misusing it.

Many presidents (including our current one) want to be like Lincoln, and President Obama already has much in common with the Great Emancipator. But to be truly Lincolnesque, Mr. Obama must pardon like Lincoln: frequently, strategically and with a great deal of compassion.

Mr. Obama should begin granting clemency regularly to those who deserve it and pose no threat to public safety. In doing so, he will send a message to Congress that systemic sentencing reforms are needed.

For example, the president could commute the sentences of the most deserving federal prisoners serving mandatory minimum terms for nonviolent, low-level or first-time drug offenses. Thousands of nonviolent crack offenders are serving far more time than those sentenced for powder cocaine offenses, an unjust result that people on both sides of the aisle have tried to change. Granting commutations to deserving crack offenders would send a wake-up call to Congress to get moving on reforming this unfair policy, just as Lincoln’s pardons of ex-Confederates were a message that Congress should get on with rebuilding the country.

Lincoln’s legacy is one of courage, political savvy and compassion. If being like Lincoln is his goal, President Obama should be as generous with the pardon power now as Lincoln was then.

Molly M. Gill directs the Commutations Project for Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

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