- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 25, 2015

President Obama granted the traditional presidential “pardon” Wednesday for two Thanksgiving turkeys, a mock executive action that is becoming increasingly familiar in real life as he forges new policy at a record pace of reprieves for federal prison inmates.

As of this week, Mr. Obama has commuted the prison sentences of 79 convicted felons in 2015, eclipsing the total number of commutations granted by all four of his predecessors combined.

The president has picked up the pace of clemency actions dramatically, including 46 commutations on a single day in July, after granting none in his first two years in office.

Mr. Obama has now commuted more sentences than any president since Lyndon B. Johnson.

“I believe that at its heart, America is a nation of second chances, and I believe these folks deserve their second chance,” Mr. Obama said when he issued the reprieves last summer.

It’s part of the president’s push for criminal-justice reform that was announced early last year to free nonviolent drug offenders, inmates referred to by former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. as “deserving individuals who do not pose a threat to public safety.”

White House counsel Neil Eggleston told the Federalist Society in Washington earlier this month that the administration is “ramping up” efforts to grant clemency, including assembling an army of more than 1,500 lawyers nationwide to work pro bono preparing petitions for the administration to consider.

There are now more than 9,000 prisoners’ petitions pending for clemency. When Republican George W. Bush left office in January 2009, there were about 1,300 petitions awaiting action. It’s been estimated that more than 16 percent of the entire federal inmate population has applied for clemency.

The criminal-justice reform effort has supporters on both sides of the aisle, including none other than billionaire industrialist Charles Koch, whose Koch Industries is urging support of White House-backed legislation to reduce the swelling federal prison population, a result in large part from lengthy sentences that were a response to the crack cocaine wave of the 1980s.

Mr. Obama even gave a shout out to the Koch brothers at the annual NAACP convention in July for backing the legislative initiative. When the audience laughed, Mr. Obama responded, “No, you’ve got to give them credit. You’ve got to call it like you see it.”

People can apply for executive clemency — pardons and commutations — through the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney. The applications must go through the deputy attorney general’s office before they are referred to the White House.

A commutation differs from a pardon, which is generally granted after someone has already served their prison sentence.

When a sentence is commuted, the inmate is released early; many of the 89 receiving commuted sentences from Mr. Obama were serving life in prison for drug offenses. President Johnson commuted the sentences of 226 while in office.

Under new criteria released by the Justice Department last spring, candidates for clemency must have served at least 10 years of their sentence, have no “significant” criminal history and no connection to gangs or organized crime. There must also be a determination that they would have received a “substantially lower” prison term if convicted of the same offenses today.

Presidential pardons do not erase criminal records. Mr. Obama actually has pardoned fewer people — 64 over seven years — than his predecessors. Mr. Bush pardoned 189 people in eight years; Bill Clinton pardoned 396, with a flurry of 218 pardons in his final three months in office, including a relative and a campaign donor.

President Nixon, a Republican, pardoned 863 people in five and a half years; Democrat Johnson pardoned 960 in a little more than five years in office.

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