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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Will Obama be Lincolnesque in granting pardons?

A recent op-ed in the Washington Times is calling on Barack Obama to be more like Abraham Lincoln in granting pardons, commutations, and clemency (GILL: Lincoln, Obama and clemency):

Today it is not so easy to get a clemency plea into the White House, and it is much harder to get one granted. Thousands of federal prisoners file for clemency each year and go through the Justice Department's lengthy, bureaucratic and prosecutor-controlled review process, where their applications are rejected for lack of an in-road to the White House.
The need - and demand - for clemency is greater than ever. Federal prisons are operating at 40 percent over capacity, due largely to mandatory minimum sentences that force judges to send nonviolent, low-level, or first-time drug offenders to prison for decades. With no parole and limited time off for good behavior, clemency is the only way out of excessive 10-, 15-, 20-year or even life sentences. Unforgivably, most presidents respond to the increased demand for mercy by either neglecting the pardon power or misusing it.

It's too early to tell if President Obama will be conservative or liberal in executing his presidential pardon powers. In the meantime, Congress should start looking at changing the federal sentencing guidelines:

[...] Granting commutations to deserving crack offenders would send a wake-up call to Congress to get moving on reforming this unfair policy, just as Lincoln's pardons of ex-Confederates were a message that Congress should get on with rebuilding the country.

At this time, Wikipedia (which obviously is not the defining authority, but is usually right on top of these things) doesn't list any pardons by Abraham Lincoln. It jumps from James Buchanan to Andrew Johnson.

Professor Dirck of Anderson University dug up a few specific civilian pardons by Lincoln.

Of particular interest is a paper entitled "Inside Lincoln's Clemency Decision Making" by P.S. Ruckman, Jr., and David Kincaid, which includes these stories, the kind of which we love so much around here:

Members of Congress frequently supported clemency requests (Luthin 1960, 403-4; Sandburg 1939 III, 505). Congressman Kellogg of New York even made such an appeal at midnight, breaking through guards and reaching the room where the President lay in bed. Kellogg informed Lincoln the petitioner (who was to be shot at sunrise) was "an old neighbor" and he couldn't "allow him to be shot!" According to Sandburg, Lincoln reportedly stayed in bed, listened quietly to the pleas of the man he had known many years, then slowly replied: "Well, I don't believe shooting him will do him any good. Give me that pen" (III, 477). Pennsylvania congressman Thaddeus Stevens once visited the White House with a woman from his district seeking a pardon for her son who was condemned to die for sleeping at his post. Ironically, Stevens was among those denouncing the President for being too free with pardons. Lincoln reportedly asked, "now, Thad, what would you do in this case if you happened to be president?" (Current 1958, 165).

So, if any of our recent presidents has what it takes, including compassion, to dish out a liberal helping of presidential benevolence in our justice system, it's President Obama. (This is an important subject and one I admit to knowing very little about.)

Op-Ed via Pardon Power, by, interestingly, one of the authors of the clemency paper.

Posted by Marie at February 19, 2009 7:49 PM

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