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January 7, 2013 (The New York Times)

Mercy Strained

An editorial in The New York Times called on President Barack Obama to use his pardon authority to enhance justice throughout the criminal justice system.

The paper noted that Mr. Obama “has rarely exercised presidential clemency to grant pardons and restore the civil rights of convicted criminals, a power that Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and other presidents used with dedication to correct injustices in the legal system.

“In part, this has been a reaction to Presidents Clinton and Bush, both of whom compromised the pardon power with cronyism.  But Mr. Obama has allowed himself to be crippled by the pardon process itself, a process managed by the Justice Department, which receives applications for clemency and makes recommendations to the White House.”

The result: huge backlogs and delays tainted by racial bias.

“One simple and immediate way for the president to reinvigorate the pardons process is to choose a person of stature and energy — say, a federal judge — to steward his administration’s pardon duties. He can end the department’s conflict of interest by replacing the pardons office with a new bipartisan commission under the White House’s aegis, giving it ample resources and real independence.

“There is much good to be done, for the sake of justice as well as mercy. Many federal inmates are serving egregiously long prison terms under mandatory minimum sentencing schemes. Mr. Obama could use the pardon power to grant clemency to some long-term prisoners, until Congress reforms those laws. And he could address the unfortunate consequences of the nation’s unfair drug sentencing laws.”

Issue Area(s): Sentencing Policy, Incarceration, Racial Disparity, Drug Policy