Ehrlich: Obama neglects his duty on pardons

Former Gov. Ehrlich says President Obama has failed in an important responsibility

November 21, 2011|By Robert L. Ehrlich Jr

This Thanksgiving, President Barack Obama will follow a long-standing presidential tradition of pardoning a pair of turkeys. Unfortunately, he has largely neglected another presidential tradition: pardoning human beings.

Our Founding Fathers entrusted the president with an extraordinary power — the ability to grant clemency in the form of pardons (which restore civil rights) and commutations (which reduce unjust or excessive sentences) to federal offenders. In almost every state, the governor is given the power to pardon or commute the sentences of those who have broken state laws. It is a highly respected responsibility and duty of the office. In effect, it allows a duly elected executive to balance the scales of justice, when appropriate.

When I became the 60th governor of Maryland in 2003, I considered the pardon power an essential part of my job. I also saw it as a way to do justice. My Democratic predecessors had neglected the power, and I vowed not to follow their examples. In short time, our Office of Legal Counsel established a monthly day and time to review pardon and commutation requests. The team investigated and interviewed applicants and contacted victims. Together, we reviewed all variety of cases wherein there existed good reason to provide sentencing relief. Sometimes, there were serious questions as to the guilt of the defendant. In others, we re-evaluated the nature and seriousness of the crime in light of the inmate's administrative adjustment record. This rigorous but balanced system gave applicants the serious attention and thorough consideration both they and our citizens deserve.

This process also ensured I could represent to all Marylanders that our administration had fulfilled an important campaign pledge on a difficult issue. Our record of 249 pardons and commutations was met with neither wild cheering nor moral outrage. (I also rejected more than 200 clemency requests.) Governors are rarely thanked, but it was enormously gratifying to hear from those who received (and earned) clemency from me. Many shared their gratitude for restored rights, restored employability and restored years with their families. This sense of restoration drives the process and offsets the understandable resistance so many executives manifest toward it. Indeed, no man made process is perfect — and with this understanding comes the realization that mistakes can be made.

But that risk should not stop executives — including the president — from using this unique power. There are too many positive considerations in favor of clemency to neglect it. In some cases, federal mandatory sentences have grown too harsh. Convictions keep people out of jobs. Our justice system is imperfect; prosecutors and police make mistakes. Prisoners and ex-offenders can and do turn their lives around; many deserve a clean slate. The pardon power is the remedy when the justice system misfires — but it only works if executives are willing to use it.

To date, President Obama has granted only 17 pardons and no commutations. Thousands of federal prisoners and ex-offenders request relief every year. By sheer numbers, it seems impossible that no applicants have merited a commutation, especially when more than 75,000 federal prisoners are serving extended mandatory minimum sentences, mostly for drug offenses.

I urge President Obama to fulfill his constitutional duty and utilize his pardon power. On rare occasions, the power has been misused and abused; he does not have to repeat those (mostly political) mistakes. Historically, presidents have wielded the pardon power generously and appropriately, granting hundreds and even thousands of requests, with scandals few and far between. Most recipients are everyday, unknown people who desperately need a fresh start.

The presidential pardon power was intended for more than just turkeys. Using it wisely and regularly does justice, changes lives and fulfills a constitutional duty — and it might even enhance the president's sense of personal satisfaction in the world's most demanding job.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, was the governor of Maryland from 2003-2007 and is now a partner at King & Spalding.

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