Mr. Obama's lackluster pardons

Thursday, December 30, 2010; 5:39 PM

RONALD LEE FOSTER was an 18-year-old Marine in 1963 when he whittled away the edges of pennies to pass them off as dimes in vending machines. He was sentenced to one year of probation and a $20 fine for mutilating the coins; the conviction kept him from obtaining a gun license in his home state of Pennsylvania.

Mr. Foster, now 65, was one of nine people pardoned by President Obama this month. The pardoned offenses ranged from illegal possession of government property to felony liquor law violations to conspiracy to distribute cocaine. Six of the pardons were for offenses so minor that they did not warrant time behind bars; six offenses were committed three decades ago, according to Pardon Power, a Web site that follows pardon and clemency issues. In short, many who were pardoned are older and have lived productive lives relatively unhampered by their minor infractions.

We do not begrudge Mr. Foster and the others their pardons. But we had hoped that Mr. Obama would reverse the regrettable trend of using this profound power so timidly.

Pardons are meant to correct mistakes left unaddressed by the legislative and judicial branches. They offer a second chance to those who have been wrongly convicted or disproportionately punished. They provide an opportunity to bestow real justice that could significantly alter someone's life for the better.

Mr. Obama did not have far to look to find suitable subjects. Thousands of people - most of them young, African American men - are serving inordinately long sentences for crack cocaine offenses. Mr. Obama earlier this year signed into law a bill that significantly reduces sentences for future crack offenses. Is the president not troubled that there are so many who continue to serve lengthy mandatory sentences under the old, draconian scheme?

Mr. Obama's skimpy use of the pardon follows President George W. Bush's eight years of neglect. Mr. Bush pardoned 189 individuals and commuted the sentences of 11 others - the stingiest record of any two-term president since World War II. Without a serious course adjustment, Mr. Obama is on track to underperform Mr. Bush. It is not a record to be proud of.

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