Begging Your Pardon, President Obama!

White House turns back on clemency, including reduced sentences

For the past three years, a 75-year-old former banker from Miami named Peter Stanham has been marooned in an overcrowded, often violent federal immigration jail in Big Spring, Texas. He sleeps on a bottom bunk in a room with 16 other detainees.

In 2006, Stanham was convicted in connection with a bank-fraud case in Florida and was sentenced to nine years in prison. Because he wasn't a U.S. citizen, though he had lived here for 30 years, authorities sent him to the immigration system, rather than the minimum-security prison typically associated with white-collar criminals.

For five years, his family has been asking presidents Bush and Obama and the Justice Department for his release, so he can be deported to his native Uruguay to live out the rest of his days.

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Holder: burned in Clinton-era pardons scandal
OECD Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development
Holder: burned in Clinton-era pardons scandal

Even the judge who sentenced Stanham is on his side, and the prosecutor doesn't oppose it. Despite favorable letters from them and more than 400 people, including four former presidents of Uruguay, the Obama administration has neither ruled for nor against his petition—even as Stanham gets older and more frail.

"We don't say he's been wrongfully accused, but he's really being punished more than anyone wanted him to be punished," says Stanham's 43-year-old son, Nicholas, a Miami-based real estate lawyer. "He's still going to be deported, and that's still a punishment. He probably won't be able to come back here, a country he loves. Where he has six children and 14 grandchildren. That's the idea: Commute it, so he can be deported."

Drayton Curry is in even more danger of running out of time. At 92, he is the nation's oldest federal prisoner. In 1991, he was convicted in North Carolina of involvement in a drug-trafficking conspiracy. It was a nonviolent crime, but he was sentenced to life in prison under the nation's "three-strikes" laws, even though he had never been accused of committing any violent acts. (He had been convicted twice previously in connection with drug conspiracies, although the second of those convictions, in New York, was essentially for agreeing to pay someone's phone bill.)

Despite his age, his poor health, his good works in prison, and the fact that he has already served nearly 20 years, Curry cannot even get Barack Obama's pardon office, run by Bush holdover Ronald Rodgers, to rule on his petition.

The Stanham and Curry cases are only two of thousands of clemency applications pending before the U.S. Department of Justice, and they illustrate a troubling aspect of Obama's presidency: his resistance to using his power to grant pardons and reduce prison sentences. One could argue that, in this instance, Barack Obama has been less merciful than George W. Bush, who as Texas governor presided over more executions than any other governor in U.S. history.

Many people who are languishing in prison and pleading for pardons or commutations of sentences might not be the ideal sympathetic "victims" of the justice system who can garner public support. But the justice system does allow for pardons and commutations, and presidents have historically granted requests for clemency from thousands of people—not just people like financier Marc Rich, who had fled to Switzerland to escape prosecution. After high-powered lobbying and campaign contributions, Rich was pardoned by Bill Clinton at the end of his presidency; that and several other pardons and clemencies became highly controversial.

The Obama administration has been more than skittish. Obama took nearly two years to issue his first pardon and has granted a total of only 17—nearly all for old, relatively minor convictions—and either rejected or ignored every single clemency petition that has been filed. Last May, with one stroke, he denied some 2,000 clemency petitions without explanation. Is it really possible there wasn't one valid clemency petition out of 2,000? Could it be because the backlog was so big, it was becoming an embarrassment?

Some former Justice Department officials charge that a serious review of these petitions doesn't even really take place anymore—a criticism supported by a recent Justice Department Inspector General's probe.

Ten of Obama's 17 pardons involved crimes that took place prior to 1990, including a 1960 conviction of a moonshiner, a 1963 conviction for "mutilation of coins," a 1972 case involving a guy who stole plywood and nails from a construction site on a military base, and a 1985 conviction for the possession of alligator hides. Another, from 1991, involved stealing cable-TV signals. And yet another: conspiracy for trading away a firearm without paying the transfer tax.

Although there must be much more compelling cases, most of Obama's pardons (the power is written into the U.S. Constitution) don't seem to be great examples of a leader finally dispensing justice to the wronged or rehabilitated.

In fact, Obama is about to set a modern record for going the longest of any president without commuting a sentence, says P.S. Ruckman, Jr., editor of the Pardon Power blog and a political science professor at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Illinois.

Meanwhile, several governors are actively using the power—and for high-profile cases. For example, Ohio governor John Kasich, a conservative Republican who formerly hosted a Fox News show, recently commuted the death sentence of a man who murdered a 72-year-old woman, citing the man's "brutally abusive upbringing." Prior to that, Kasich commuted the sentence of another death-row inmate.

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