A Need for Mercy

Monday, February 9, 2009

ON THE pardon front, many critics greeted the end of the Bush administration with a sigh of relief. President George W. Bush did not issue preemptive pardons for intelligence officers and others who either crafted or carried out extreme interrogations of terrorism detainees. Although he earlier spared him from prison time, Mr. Bush did not pardon I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney who was convicted of perjury. And he did not shorten the sentences of former congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) or former Louisiana governor Edwin W. Edwards (D), both convicted on public corruption charges.

Indeed, Mr. Bush's legacy on pardons will be shaped largely by what he failed to do. Mr. Bush pardoned 189 inmates and commuted the sentences of 11 others -- the stingiest record compiled by any two-term president since World War II. President Ronald Reagan was not known to be soft on crime, yet even he graced nearly 400 inmates with pardons.

Mr. Bush failed to offer even a mild corrective for the dramatic racial disparities that have resulted from mandatory minimum sentences for those apprehended with minuscule amounts of crack cocaine. He seems not to have taken seriously the unique constitutional power bestowed on presidents to bring a measure of mercy to those who failed to find justice through more conventional means. Perhaps after the term-ending fiascos of the Clinton administration, which gave us the notorious pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, it is not hard to understand why a president might shy away from using the pardon power. Perhaps this explains Mr. Bush's failure to act on a whole host of cases.

President Obama should muster such courage when a failure to act allows the perpetuation of injustices that cannot be remedied elsewhere. Those decisions must be informed by the facts of the case and not governed by the political connections or financial contributions of the applicant. Mercy, as Shakespeare wrote, is the gift twice blessed, but that is true only if it is given freely and only on the merits.

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