President Biden on Tuesday pardoned or commuted the sentences of 78 people convicted of nonviolent federal crimes. The president’s move did not come soon enough for some who had hoped he would use his office to reform the criminal justice system. In fact, he deserves credit for moving assertively but with care in determining who should benefit from clemency, showing what a tremendous upgrade he is from his immediate predecessor.
The pardon power is one of the most potent authorities that presidents wield, enabling them to unilaterally release individuals from federal prison or wipe away their criminal records for practically any reason. Criminal justice reform advocates pressed Mr. Biden to quickly pardon many people in the federal system. Many past presidents shied from using this power as extensively as they should have, for fear that a released prisoner might reoffend, causing a political headache for the president and his party.
Others used it inappropriately. President Bill Clinton’s 11th-hour pardons of a Democratic donor looked like a quid pro quo. President Donald Trump was far worse. He pardoned personal associates convicted of or on trial for serious offenses, such as disgraced former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn and pro-Trump provocateur Stephen K. Bannon. The message was clear: Instead of cooperating with investigators, remaining loyal to Mr. Trump would earn you a pardon. At other times, Mr. Trump pardoned people for whom celebrities such as Kim Kardashian advocated and people who had connections to the White House, rather than seeking to help the federal prisoners who most deserved his attention.
By contrast, Mr. Biden pardoned three people who served time in federal custody and, after release, reshaped their lives around their families and communities. One of them, Abraham Bolden Sr., 87, was the first Black person to serve on a Secret Service presidential detail before he was convicted of trying to sell a copy of a Secret Service file. Mr. Bolden still says he was innocent, and an important witness in his trial admitted he lied at prosecutors’ behest. The president also commuted the sentences of 75 nonviolent drug offenders, many of whom would have received shorter sentences if they had been convicted now.
Along with these pardons and commutations, Mr. Biden announced new job-training, housing and health-care programs for those leaving prison, in an effort to reduce recidivism.
Advocates’ frustration about the slow pace of criminal justice reform is understandable. It was a particularly hard blow when bipartisan talks on policing reform collapsed in the Senate last year. They should continue to press the president on pardons. But after Mr. Trump made the presidential pardon power seem arbitrary and unchecked, Mr. Biden is right to restore a sense of dignity and fairness to its exercise.
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