- Barack Obama granted more clemencies than any other president in U.S. history, totalling more than 1,700.
- The role of clemency during Obama’s presidency was a significant tool for addressing the high incarceration rate in the U.S.
- The execution of the clemency process involved a comprehensive review system that relied heavily on the conduct of the prisoners and their chances of rehabilitation.
- Despite criticisms, the clemency process in Obama’s term was not arbitrary but rather intricate and well-informed.
A Uniquely Merciful President
When it comes to granting clemency, no U.S. President has been more generous than Barack Obama. Throughout his two terms in office, Obama granted commutations to over 1,700 federal prisoners. He saw this as a crucial tool in fighting against the nation’s excessive incarceration rates, a stance he shared in the Harvard Law Review, emphasizing the underutilization and importance of the clemency power in advancing reform.
But Obama’s record, as impressive as it is, didn’t quite meet initial expectations. His final tally fell considerably short of the speculated 10,000 clemencies projected by former Attorney General Eric Holder, which would have been a stunning one out of every 19 federal prisoners. The administration received an unprecedented number of clemency petitions, which became a daunting task to handle effectively.
The Man Behind the Clemency Machine: Neil Eggleston
An instrumental figure in the execution of Obama’s clemency process was Neil Eggleston. Appointed as the White House counsel in April 2014, Eggleston worked on ensuring an effective infrastructure was in place for reviewing and recommending clemency petitions to the President. The process was slow to start, given its considerable scale, but it was vital to meet the looming deadline that was the end of Obama’s term.
Eggleston’s role was crucial in managing the clemency review system and providing detailed case memos to the President. Obama was deeply involved in the process, carefully reviewing each petition and probing for more information when required. This practice demonstrated Obama’s commitment to a dual perspective on clemency – it was not only an issue of excessive sentencing but also of rehabilitation and second chances.
Obama’s Approach to Clemency: A Gift to Be Earned
Obama considered the clemency he granted as a gift, a gift that had to be earned by the prisoners. He didn’t believe it was enough that someone had received an excessive sentence; he also considered whether the individual showed signs of rehabilitation and a desire for a second chance. Factors such as conduct in prison, participation in programs, and prior convictions played a significant role in his decisions.
Critics have often suggested that the clemency process under Obama was arbitrary, with seemingly similar cases sometimes resulting in different outcomes. However, such criticism fails to acknowledge the depth of information available to those making the decisions. The view from the inside was much more comprehensive, with detailed records of prisoners’ conduct and prior crimes playing a significant part in the decisions made.
A Balancing Act: Clemency and Public Safety
While the goal was to offer second chances, it was also vital to consider public safety. The fear was real – one heinous crime committed by a clemency recipient could potentially derail the whole program. With the understanding of this critical balance, Obama explicitly communicated to the released prisoners that their actions would also influence the future of clemency for others.
During his term, Obama commuted two death sentences, an act seen by many as a stance against capital punishment. Yet, these decisions were highly context-dependent and not an overarching statement on the death penalty issue.
The Role of Prosecutors and the Future of Clemency
Critics have also questioned the involvement of federal prosecutors in the clemency process, given they were part of the original sentencing. However, these concerns have been dismissed as being based on theoretical rather than actual conflicts. The Department of Justice, under Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and Attorney General Loretta Lynch, supported the clemency initiative.
With the end of Obama’s term, there was speculation on the future of the clemency initiative. Given the public opposition from incoming Attorney General Jeff Sessions, concerns were raised about the potential change in direction.
In conclusion, Obama’s approach to clemency during his presidency was a significant facet of his legacy, demonstrating his commitment to justice reform and offering second chances to deserving prisoners. The process was intricate, reliant on detailed review and consideration, and keenly focused on both justice and public safety. His approach and execution of the clemency process underpin the compassionate, progressive, and careful leadership that characterized Obama’s term.