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Presidential Pardons in 2016

5 October 2016

 On Wednesday, August 3rd, 2016, President Obama granted clemency, forgiveness of a sentence, to 214 incarcerated individuals, 67 of which were serving life sentences in federal penitentiaries. This raises some questions about what clemency actually entails. Clemency, under the US Constitution, allows the President to grant pardons and commutations to federal prisoners.

A pardon is complete forgiveness in sentencing. Upon release, the person will not have any civil disabilities; meaning that they can serve in a jury, vote, or hold office if they chose to do so.

A commutation is more likely to be a reduction in a sentence rather than having it be completely erased (though an immediate release is possible).

The biggest difference between a pardon and commutation is that those who receive a commutation still face civil disabilities and are still unable to vote, etc.

The President’s power to grant pardons is limited to the federal level. On the state and local level, only the governor of the state has the power to grant prisoners pardons.

As of August 2016, President Obama has shortened or ended the sentences of 562 incarcerated individuals, more than the last nine presidents combined. He states that “The power to grant pardons and commutations (…) embodies the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance after having made a mistake in their lives that led to a conviction under our laws.”

Neil Eggleston wrote on the White House Blog that “All of the individuals receiving commutation today, (were) incarcerated under outdated and unduly harsh sentencing laws (...) The individual nature of the clemency process underscores both its incredible power to change a person’s life, but also its inherent shortcoming as a tool for broader sentencing reform.” and that he expects that “the President will continue to grant clemency in a historic and inspiring fashion.”

Some feel that Obama is granting clemency too loosely. In 2014, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions spoke on his view of the presidential pardon. "The Administration's announcement that the President intends to grant clemency to ‘perhaps thousands' of convicted federal drug offenders--including those who have limited ties to gangs and cartels--is an alarming abuse of the pardon power. (...) While the pardon power has been interpreted broadly, the Framers never intended for it to be used in this manner. Rather, they intended for it to be used on a limited, case-by-case basis to correct injustice”.

Sessions goes on to say that “Federal drug laws are reserved almost exclusively for the most serious drug trafficking and importation crimes. Many of these offenders have caused enormous harm in their own communities. Parents do not want to see more drug dealers on their city streets or near their children's schools.”

While Obama and others are excited about the prospect of non-violent offenders getting a chance to turn their lives around and be good role models to their families and communities, Sessions and others worry about the risks of people committing crimes after they are released and the harm to the community that it may cause.

To learn more about the application process for a presidential pardon click here
Click the following links to read statements and voting records for your state and federal politicians on crime and drugs.

Maverick Marenger is a student at Eastern Michigan University, majoring in Political Science and Gender Studies. They are currently interning with Vote Smart in Special Interest Groups For more information on internship opportunities with Vote Smart, contact us at or by calling 1-888-VOTE-SMART.


Related tags: blog, clemency, commutation, pardon, presidential-pardons

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