December 9, 2016

Obama has used clemency power more often than any president since LBJ

With a little over a month left in office, President Barack Obama has granted clemency to more people convicted of federal crimes than any chief executive in nearly 50 years. Then again, he’s also received far more requests for clemency than any U.S. president on record, largely as a result of an initiative set up by his administration to shorten prison terms for nonviolent federal inmates.

As of Nov. 30, Obama has granted clemency to 1,093 individuals (the vast majority convicted of drug-related offenses), a figure that includes 1,023 commutations and 70 pardons. That’s the highest total for any president since Lyndon B. Johnson, who granted clemency 1,187 times – including 960 pardons, 226 commutations and one remission – during his roughly five years in office, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Department of Justice statistics.

Clemency refers to multiple forms of presidential mercy. The two most common are commutations, which completely or partially reduce sentences for those in prison or on community supervision, and pardons, which forgive past crimes and restore civil rights. Two less-common forms are remissions, which reduce financial penalties associated with convictions, and respites, which are temporary reprieves that are usually granted to inmates for medical reasons.

Obama has been particularly active later in his tenure. Indeed, in the 2016 fiscal year (which ended Sept. 30), he granted clemency 589 times, including 583 commutations and six pardons. That’s the most of any president in any fiscal year since 1920, when Woodrow Wilson issued 341 commutations, 198 pardons, 57 respites and 43 remissions for a total of 639 acts of clemency, according to DOJ.

Obama’s record, however, looks far less forgiving when considering the number of requests for clemency that he has received. In fiscal 2016 alone, for example, he received 12,026 such requests, by far the most in any single year on record. Overall, Obama has received 34,930 petitions for clemency during his tenure – a figure that exceeds the total of the previous eight presidents combined.

Looking at the same data another way, Obama has granted clemency to only 3% of those who have requested it. That’s not especially unusual among recent presidents, who have tended to use their clemency power sparingly. But it’s near the bottom when considering all chief executives since 1900, the earliest year for which DOJ has published statistics. Harry S. Truman, for example, granted clemency for 41% of the petitions he received, while William Howard Taft and Wilson did so for 39% and 38%, respectively.

Of course, we should note that Obama has received such a large number of clemency requests in part because his administration asked for them. Under a program launched in 2014 known as the Clemency Initiative, the Justice Department has encouraged “qualified federal inmates” – as defined by DOJ criteria – to apply to have their prison sentences commuted. The initiative has led to a surge in requests and also helps explain why Obama’s use of clemency has tilted so heavily toward sentence commutations, rather than pardons.

Indeed, Obama’s presidency is noteworthy for its sharp divergence between commutations and pardons. He is on track to commute more sentences than any president since Wilson, who commuted 1,366. But he has granted fewer pardons to date than any president for whom DOJ has published statistics. The only one who comes close is George H.W. Bush, who issued 74 pardons – but served only four years in office, compared with Obama’s nearly eight.

In his broad use of commutations, Obama has reduced sentences for federal inmates who were convicted in all but three states (Arizona, Nevada and Vermont). He has granted commutations most often to inmates convicted in Florida (170), Texas (106), North Carolina (59), Illinois (57) and Virginia (56).

Topics: Barack Obama, Criminal Justice, Death Penalty, Religion and U.S. Politics, U.S. Political Figures

  1. is a writer/editor at Pew Research Center.

  2. is a research assistant at Pew Research Center.

2 Comments

  1. Anonymous4 weeks ago

    This would be a way to address it.
    presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php… Take a look at the Clemency Board appointed by President Gerald Ford – this may be why thousands were granted.

  2. Anonymous1 month ago

    It would be significantly helpful to understand the number of imprisoned to view the commutations and pardons in context. And to a lesser degree, arguably more important, the crime committed and the offender’s race.