October 5, 2011

Areport from the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General rightly takes the Obama administration to task for moving at a snail’s pace to answer the pleas of thousands of inmates seeking clemency or pardon.

The report notes that significant delays occur at virtually every step of the pardon process, which begins when a prisoner files a request with the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney. DOJ officials often take months to report back to the pardon attorney with their views.

But the greatest share of the blame for the slow speed resides with the White House. Mr. Obama did not issue a single pardon for nearly the first two years of his presidency. Once Justice Department recommendations are forwarded to the White House, they languish an average of nine months before the president acts. The administration has recently made headway in reducing the backlog of cases — from 4,700 to 2,000 — but only because it denied thousands of petitions.

While more timely processing is needed, the real travesty involves the president’s miserly use of his pardon power. Pardon is often an inmate’s last best chance for justice. It is meant to correct wrongs left unaddressed by the courts or legislature, and should be used wisely but unsparingly to give a second chance to those who have been wrongly convicted or sentenced to disproportionately and unjustifiably long prison terms.

Mr. Obama has thus far extended mercy to a mere 17 individuals, most of whom committed relatively minor offenses decades ago. Take, for example, the case of Ronald Lee Foster, who was an 18-year-old Marine in 1963 when he was sentenced to one year of probation and a $20 fine for mutilating U.S. coins. It did not take an abundance of courage for Mr. Obama to pardon Mr. Foster. At this pace, Mr. Obama is likely to fall below the 189 pardons issued by George W. Bush — the modern president with the worst track record in this area.

Mr. Obama need only look to the thousands of Americans — many of them young, African American men — incarcerated for inexcusably lengthy periods because of draconian crack cocaine laws. Mr. Obama joined with a bipartisan coalition in Congress to reduce the penalties and make them more proportional to the crime. Some inmates may benefit from a U.S. Sentencing Commission decision this summer that allows judges to resentence inmates under new guidelines reflecting the penalty reductions. But many nonviolent offenders worthy of relief will be out of luck because they were sentenced to mandatory minimum prison terms. This is exactly the kind of situation that cries out for presidential intervention.