President Obama has infrequently exercised his power to grant pardons or reduce sentences since taking office and is contributing to a growing backlog of requests for clemency, according to a new audit by the Justice Department.
Convicted criminals have petitioned presidents for pardons or commuted sentences more than 95,000 times since 1900, with just 22 percent of those requests granted, according to the report. Between 2005 and 2010, President Obama and George W. Bush granted clemency 177 times — or in just 3 percent of the 5,806 cases they reviewed.
In the same five-year period, clemency requests more than doubled, adding significantly to a backlog of petitions that jumped 92 percent over those five years. The White House is to blame for most of the backlog, the report says, noting that Obama did not consider any clemency requests between taking office in Jan. 2009 through the end of fiscal 2010.
In response to the report, White House spokesman Matt Lehrich said “The president takes his constitutional power to grant clemency very seriously. Recommendations from the Department of Justice are carefully considered before decisions are made.”
Obama reduced the backlog last October by granting nine pardons and denying clemency in more than 1,200 other cases, the report said. In May, Obama again granted eight more pardons and denied another 741 pardon and 1,947 commutation petitions. Those decisions helped cut the backlog to 2,064 petitions by the end of August.
White House officials also noted Tuesday that the timing of Obama’s first clemency decisions are consistent with when George W. Bush and Bill Clinton first considered requests.
Before cases reach the White House, they are reviewed by the Justice Department’s Office of Pardon Attorney. The report credited the office’s 12-member staff for processing more than 1,700 requests in fiscal 2010, a figure up significantly over five years despite no significant budget increase.
In response, the pardon office said it would begin sending e-mails to Justice Department offices and agencies that review clemency petitions to remind them of cases nearing a two-month deadline. It also said it is processing the overwhelming majority of petitions electronically to save time and money.
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