The Constitution gives the president the power “to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.” That typically either comes in the form of a commutation — which reduces or eliminates a sentence, but does not wipe away a conviction — or a pardon, which disposes of all legal consequences from a crime. The cases generally start at the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney — which has just 11 lawyers — before they are sent to the attorney general and White House counsel’s office.
In modern history, presidents have treated clemency as an afterthought, granting it in their waning days, often as a gift to friends and associates. Trump was no exception and took that a step further.
In most cases, Trump bypassed the lengthy, multilevel process for clemency that has been conducted for more than a century. Instead, he made decisions through an ad hoc system where politically connected allies and well-paid lobbyists tried to persuade him in person and on TV to use pardons to help friends and hurt enemies.
In total, Trump granted 237 pardons or commutations and denied 180 cases. Many of those he acted on were headline-grabbing: former members of Congress, numerous people convicted in Robert Mueller’s probe into Russia’s 2016 election interference, and security contractors convicted for massacring Iraqi civilians in 2008. He failed to act on thousands of other cases, leaving 13,750 behind for Biden.
But the current backlog — the largest on record, according to the Justice Department and experts — can’t be blamed on Trump alone.
Barack Obama waited well into his second term to act. When he urged federal prisoners to apply for leniency under his clemency initiative, which allowed certain inmates to make their case for getting their sentences commuted, petitions soared. He received more than 36,000 requests, the largest total of any president on record. And he acted on an historic amount — more than 22,000 cases — granting clemency 1,927 times, including 212 pardons and 1,715 commutations.
But Obama didn’t take care of all the pending cases, leaving behind 13,000 of them when he left office. And when his final pardon attorney, Deborah Leff, resigned in January of Obama’s final year in office, she lamented that the clemency initiative didn’t have enough resources.
“In his clemency initiative, President Obama focused significant resources on identifying inmates, most of them people of color, who had been sentenced to excessive and draconian sentences,” said Neil Eggleston, who served as White House counsel for Obama. “The president would have liked to clear the backlog in pending petitions, but resources spent in achieving that goal would have resulted in fewer inmates who were serving those excessive sentences for relatively minor drug crimes being released.”
What may help Biden advance the issue more than his predecessors is the changing politics. In July 2015, a group of House Republicans balked at Obama’s initiative, complaining in a letter to the attorney general that “we are deeply concerned that the President continues to use his pardon power to benefit specific classes of offenders, or for political purposes.”
But Trump made nominal support for sentence reduction and criminal justice reform a calling card issue for his reelection campaign and congressional Republicans largely followed suit.
— to www.politico.com