PRESIDENT CLINTON earlier this month granted conditional commutations of the prison sentences or fines of 16 Puerto Rican independence activists connected to a nationalist terrorist organization. The move drew immediate fire from all sides. In Puerto Rico, Mr. Clinton was criticized for the conditions he attached to the clemency: that the men not associate with their former comrades and that they renounce violence and formally request early release. Meanwhile, the president also took fire at home for having been too soft. The beneficiaries of his act were terrorists, after all, and cutting their sentences arguably implies too much forgiveness for the acts for which they were convicted.
The crimes these men committed were, to be sure, serious. Most were convicted in the 1980s of seditious conspiracy and various armed robbery and firearms charges. The group with which they were associated, the Armed Forces of National Liberation, was responsible for more than 100 bomb attacks over a 10-year period, and some of the prisoners also had explosives convictions.
Yet the sentences these people received do seem excessive even considering the severity of the crimes. Some received prison terms as long as 90 years, though nobody was hurt in the course of the crimes with which they were charged. The sentences were dramatically longer than a defendant today would receive under the federal sentencing guidelines. Commutation apparently enjoys wide support in Puerto Rico, and Mr. Clinton's move has a precedent of sorts. Former president Jimmy Carter commuted the sentences of a group of Puerto Rican nationalists who shot up the House of Representatives and one who tried to assassinate President Truman. Though law enforcement officials -- the FBI quite strenuously -- argued against the commutations, the Justice Department institutionally did not oppose it.
The power to pardon and commute sentences is one of the few absolute constitutional powers of the president. The use of this power has been somewhat out of favor in recent years. President Clinton has made particularly stingy use of the power, which in general probably deserves a larger role in the criminal justice system than it currently enjoys.
This is a difficult case, one that pits real counterterrorism concerns against the fact that those convicted received sentences that seem hard to justify. Presidential commutation, particularly in the conditional form in which Mr. Clinton acted, seems to satisfy nobody. But it also seems like an appropriate response.