Under mounting pressure to free convicts as a last act, President Barack Obama is planning at least one more batch of pardons and commutations before leaving office in two weeks, but don’t expect many famous offenders to make the list.
The list of bold names appealing to Obama for compassion in his final weeks includes accused leaker Chelsea Manning, former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, and supporters of Edward Snowden, to name a few. Yet White House officials say Obama’s final grants are expected to remain focused on the nonviolent contraband offenders he’s sought to help during his second term.
Obama has viewed clemency as a tool to promote policy goals, not to “clean out the barn” on his way out, said the officials, who requested anonymity to discuss internal White House deliberations.
“The process that I put in place is not going to vary” at the end, Obama said in August. He said he’d make the calls “based on the merits, as opposed to political considerations.”
Presidents have two clemency options: commutations, which reduce sentences being served but don’t erase convictions, and pardons, which generally restore civil rights — like voting — often after a sentence has been served.
Earlier in his presidency, Obama was unsatisfied with the cases he was receiving, officials said, and so in a 2014 initiative the Justice Department created specific criteria focusing on nonviolent individuals who have served 10 years and, if convicted under today’s more lenient sentencing guidelines, would have received shorter sentences.
All told, Obama has granted 1,176 commutations and 148 pardons — fewer pardons than some presidents, but more commutations than any other, the White House said.
Obama’s goal in taking on the commutations project was to spur action in Congress on a criminal justice overhaul. That seemed initially promising, but the momentum petered out.
“It’s politically risky. You commute somebody and they commit a crime, and the politics of it are tough,” Obama has said.
But Obama has also been criticized for being too lenient — including by President-elect Donald Trump, who has accused the president of putting “bad dudes” on the street and warned Americans, “Sleep tight, folks.”
Steve Cook, the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys president, faulted Obama for feeding the perception that federal prisons are “full of low-level, nonviolent offenders.” He said Obama was eroding prison’s deterrent effect by granting clemency to people with multiple felony convictions and firearms charges.
“When you grant somebody like that clemency, you’re sending a message to the entire drug-trafficking world,” Cook said.
There will be a backlog of applicants when Obama leaves office, officials said, just as a backlog awaited Obama. But most of those whose cases won’t be resolved are people convicted of serious crimes like murder. Rather than expend limited resources issuing formal denials, the administration focused on approving those eligible under Obama’s guidelines.