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The president’s stingy use of pardons

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IN A RECENT series of articles on presidential pardons, Dafna Linzer and Jennifer LeFleur revealed disturbing and disappointing truths about a process that is meant to correct injustices against those who have been unfairly or disproportionately punished by the criminal justice system. What was designed as a tool to bestow mercy often turns on the most cynical of factors and produces results few would recognize as fair.

The series, which was produced by ProPublica and published in The Post, found that white offenders are four times more likely to receive presidential pardons than are minority individuals guilty of similar crimes and sentenced to similar terms.

Presidents increasingly neglect the pardon power, and on those rare occasions when they act they often do so with great timidity.

President Obama has not broken the pattern. Since taking office in 2009, he has issued 22 pardons and one commutation. Last year, he pardoned a man convicted in the 1960s for whittling away the edges of pennies to pass them off as dimes in vending machines. Like most of those Mr. Obama has pardoned, the coin mutilator did not serve time behind bars.

Mr. Obama is on track to underperform President George W. Bush, who issued a measly 189 pardons during his two terms in office — the stingiest record of any two-term president since World War II.

But there is reason to hope that Mr. Obama will reverse course. In November he issued his first act of mercy involving a crack cocaine defendant when he commuted the sentence of Eugenia Marie Jennings of Illinois.

Ms. Jennings, an African American mother of three who was a victim of domestic abuse, was sentenced in 2001 to nearly 22 years in prison for selling 13.9 grams of crack to an undercover officer. She was also required to pay a $1,750 fine and submit to eight years of supervision once released. During her decade behind bars, Ms. Jennings overcame her own addiction and began speaking with students about the dangers of drug abuse.

Mr. Obama — in what thus far has been his most muscular use of the pardon power — ordered that Ms. Jennings be freed Dec. 21, in time for the holidays and to see her daughter graduate from high school; he kept in place the supervised release requirement.

Ms. Jennings was one of the fortunate few who had the help of top-flight lawyers, D.C. advocates and a home-state U.S. senator (Illinois Democrat Richard J. Durbin). Surely there are others just as worthy who may not have secured the lobbying support to distinguish their cases among thousands filed each year. Many of them are victims of laws that treated crack cocaine far more harshly than powder cocaine. Their petitions should not and need not be neglected.

The president should build on his courageous pardoning of Ms. Jennings by directing the Justice Department to help him fulfill his constitutional duty to see that justice is done.

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