In June 2018, the fundamental differences between pardons and commutations appear to have been lost on a meme creator who produced a graphic presenting the claim that President Obama “pardoned” more than 1,700 criminals during his term, and that more than 330 of those pardons were granted during his final week in office:
Some versions of this meme carried a watermark for right-wing youth activist group Turning Point USA (TPUSA), but we were unable to find any instances of this particular group’s sharing the meme. Although we aren’t certain if TPUSA was responsible for the creation of the meme (several examples of this image, such as the one shown above, do not contain a watermark) the group’s founder, Charlie Kirk, has repeated at least one of its claims on Twitter:
The meme, much like Kirk, confused pardons with commutations. The U.S. Constitution grants the President of the United States the executive power of clemency in Article II, Section 2. This power can be expressed via a commutation, which reduces prison sentences but does not reverse convictions or expunge criminal records, or a pardon, which fully absolves a person of guilt for a criminal offense.
The U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) explained the difference between pardons and commutations thusly:
In the federal system, commutation of sentence and pardon are different forms of executive clemency, which is a broad term that applies to the President’s constitutional power to exercise leniency toward persons who have committed federal crimes.
A commutation of sentence reduces a sentence, either totally or partially, that is then being served, but it does not change the fact of conviction, imply innocence, or remove civil disabilities that apply to the convicted person as a result of the criminal conviction. A commutation may include remission (release) of the financial obligations that are imposed as part of a sentence, such as payment of a fine or restitution. A remission applies only to the part of the financial obligation that has not already been paid. A commutation of sentence has no effect on a person’s immigration status and will not prevent removal or deportation from the United States. To be eligible to apply for commutation of sentence, a person must have reported to prison to begin serving his sentence and may not be challenging his conviction in the courts.
A pardon is an expression of the President’s forgiveness and ordinarily is granted in recognition of the applicant’s acceptance of responsibility for the crime and established good conduct for a significant period of time after conviction or completion of sentence. It does not signify innocence. It does, however, remove civil disabilities – e.g., restrictions on the right to vote, hold state or local office, or sit on a jury – imposed because of the conviction for which pardon is sought, and should lessen the stigma arising from the conviction. It may also be helpful in obtaining licenses, bonding, or employment. Under some – but not all – circumstances, a pardon will eliminate the legal basis for removal or deportation from the United States. Pursuant to the Rules Governing Petitions for Executive Clemency, which are available on this website, a person is not eligible to apply for a presidential pardon until a minimum of five years has elapsed since his release from any form of confinement imposed upon him as part of a sentence for his most recent criminal conviction, whether or not that is the conviction for which he is seeking the pardon.
For instance, when President Obama commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning on 17 January 2017, reducing a 35-year prison sentence to about seven years, that did not change Manning’s status as a felon convicted by court-martial for violations of the Espionage Act.
The numbers presented in the meme appear to be inaccurate as well. Clemency statistics compiled by the DOJ show that President Obama commuted 1,715 prison sentences during his time in office and also issued 212 pardons:
President Obama did employ his power of clemency for 330 federal inmates during his final week in office, but again his actions produced sentence commutations, not pardons, as was reported at the time:
President Obama commuted the sentences of 330 more federal inmates, capping an unprecedented clemency effort that has now released 1,715 prisoners — more than any other president in history.
The clemency grants announced on Obama’s last full day in office set a one-day record.
“Proud to make this one of my final actions as President. America is a nation of second chances, and 1,715 people deserved that shot,” Obama tweeted.
The clemency initiative, which began in 2014, was targeted at drug dealers who received mandatory-minimum sentences during the War on Drugs from the 1980s to the 2000s.
President Barack Obama did grant more commutations than any other president in U.S. history to date. However, given that he also received a record number of clemency petitions, his clemency rate was comparatively low:
Obama’s record, however, looks far less forgiving when considering the number of requests for clemency that he received. In fiscal 2016 alone, he received 12,026 such requests, by far the most in any single year on record. Over the full course of his tenure, Obama received 36,544 petitions for clemency — a figure that exceeds the total of the previous nine presidents combined.
Looking at the same data another way, Obama granted clemency to only 5% of those who 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. Truman, for example, granted clemency for 41% of the petitions he received; William Howard Taft and Wilson did so for 39% and 38%, respectively.
Of course, Obama 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 encouraged “qualified federal inmates” — as defined by DOJ criteria — to apply to have their prison sentences commuted. The initiative led to a surge in requests and also helps explain why Obama’s use of clemency tilted so heavily toward sentence commutations, rather than pardons.
Although President Obama set a record for the most commutations in history, his total of 212 pardons was well below that of many of his predecessors. Bill Clinton issued 396 pardons, Ronald Reagan 393, and the all-time record goes to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who issued 2,819 pardons during his 12 years (not 16) in office. George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush were the only presidents of the modern era who issued fewer pardons than Barack Obama.