Presidential Mercy Is a Woefully Inadequate Remedy for Injustice
When Donald Trump pardoned Steve Bannon last week, the outgoing president blocked the former White House strategist’s prosecution for bilking donors to an organization that claimed to be raising money for a wall along the border with Mexico. When Trump granted a commutation to Craig Cesal, by contrast, he freed a man who had already served 17 years of what was originally a life sentence for repairing trucks that were used to transport marijuana.
As those examples reflect, Trump’s acts of clemency mixed favors to cronies with relief for genuinely deserving federal prisoners hit with grossly disproportionate penalties. The controversy over his choices highlights longstanding problems with a clemency system that is a woefully inadequate remedy for the injustices routinely inflicted by rigid and draconian federal sentences.
Trump’s final batch of 70 commutations brought his total to 94, which included dozens of nonviolent drug offenders, 18 of whom had received life sentences. He shortened more sentences than all but one of his eight most recent predecessors.
The one exception is Barack Obama, who granted a record 1,715 commutations, nearly all in his second term and the vast majority during his last year in office. Even Obama, however, approved just 5 percent of petitions for commutations, five times Trump’s rate (which was in turn 10 times George W. Bush’s rate) but still pretty slim odds for people languishing behind bars, often because of conduct that violated no one’s rights.
On Trump’s last day in office, The New York Times complained that he had “largely bypassed a rigorous Justice Department process for vetting and approving” pardons and commutations. Yet th
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