THE FLAP over President Clinton's decision to commute the sentences of a group of Puerto Rican separatists is one of the first of what will, no doubt, be a long string of oddities stemming from Hillary Clinton's run for the Senate. The clemency was offered last month on the condition that the convicts -- who are associated with the terrorist group known as the Armed Forces of National Liberation -- renounce violence, not associate with their former comrades and formally request early release. Pervasive suspicion that the offer was a ploy for Puerto Rican votes in New York led Ms. Clinton over the weekend to distance herself from it by suggesting publicly that the offer be rescinded. The convicts, she argued -- even as congressional Republicans were threatening to hold hearings on the matter -- had not yet responded to the offer or renounced violence, and that implied that they did not deserve clemency. The White House, in turn, put a deadline on the offer, and most of the Puerto Ricans on Tuesday accepted it.
It is perhaps inevitable that Mr. Clinton's action should be assessed through the prism of New York politics, but it is also unfortunate. Whatever the president's motives, the case for clemency is strong. The group to which the convicts belonged, which is known by its Spanish acronym FALN, was responsible for more than 100 bombings. And the people in question were charged with and convicted of serious crimes -- a range of armed robberies, firearms charges and explosives charges. But they were crimes in which nobody was hurt or killed. Their sentences on each count, moreover, were imposed consecutively, meaning that their total sentences range as long as 90 years in prison.
This is very difficult to justify, especially when compared with other sentences in similar cases. Only a few weeks ago, for example, a man named Jose Solis Jordan, a Puerto Rican nationalist, was sentenced in Illinois for planting two pipe bombs near a military recruiting center. One bomb was defused, another caught fire instead of exploding, nobody was hurt, and Mr. Solis received a sentence of 51 months in prison.
Clemency in the FALN case is not an easy call, but neither is it outside the zone of reasonable uses of the clemency power. In general, Mr. Clinton's use of the clemency power should be criticized as too timid, not as too political or too lenient. That isn't to say he should be pardoning his friends who have gotten in trouble with the law. But pardons and clemency, when properly used, are powerful tools for softening the hard edges of the criminal justice system. That is what happened here, and that seems, on balance, like a good thing.