Presidential pardons historically have provided a critical safety valve in the federal criminal justice system. Today, though, that is no longer true.
Throughout American history, Presidents issued pardons in a measurable chunk of federal criminal cases. (Statistics available here and here.) Back when only a few thousand federal criminal cases were charged each year, Presidents generally exercised their pardon power in hundreds of cases. In the early 19th century, for example, James Monroe pardoned 419 people. In the early 20th century, Woodrow Wilson pardoned 2,480 people. On a percentage basis, pardons have been becoming rarer over time. Even in the 1970s and 1980s, however, presidents have averaged about 400 or 500 pardons per Term. And of course, the federal prison population in absolute terms has gone way up since that time: according to Bureau of Prison statistics, the federal prison population has jumped from 20,000 in 1970 to about 150,000 today.
Under George W. Bush, however, the pardon process essentially has come to a standstill. The Associated Press reports that the total number of pardons that George W. Bush has granted in his first Term in office is currently 31, jumping all the way from 27 with the addition of 4 new pardons announced yesterday. The only two Presidents who completed a Term in office with fewer pardons than Bush are the first two Presidents — George Washington and John Adams — and that was only because at the time there was no one around to pardon. Further, the four pardons granted yesterday are entirely symbolic. They all involve misdemeanor charges that resulted in probation, and in each case the probation was served and the case closed many years ago — and in some cases many decades ago. (The convictions were obtained in 1969, 1980, 1981, and 1990.) [UPDATE: It turns out that while all 4 crimes were minor and resulted only in probation, the convictions technically were felony convictions, not misdemeanors.]
Presidential pardons can be politically risky; just ask Bill Clinton about pardoning Marc Rich. But it’s the President’s job to do the right thing regardless of what the pollsters say. There are currently 150,000 people in federal prisons, with another 50,000 or so on probation. Could it be that none of them deserve Presidential pardons?
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