BY MIMI HALL • USA TODAY • April 28, 2010
WASHINGTON — President Obama has received more petitions for pardons and shorter prison sentences than previous presidents at this point in office, and he hasn't approved a single one.
Obama has already logged 2,361 clemency petitions, according to the Justice Department. He also faces a backlog of 2,173 old requests, a legacy of a system that civil rights groups and conservative jurists say has fallen into disuse.
Not since Gerald Ford, who approved more than 150 clemency petitions in his first year in office, has a president granted mercy more than 10 times early in his tenure. George W. Bush and Bill Clinton each waited about two years to approve a pardon or shorten a prison sentence, records show.
"The incredibly pernicious political atmosphere makes it difficult for even a president who wanted to use the power," says Daniel Kobil, a professor at Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio.
Recent presidents have scarcely used the privilege in part because of Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who commited robbery and rape in 1986 while out of prison on a furlough sanctioned by Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, a Democrat. Campaign ads about Horton contributed to Dukakis' loss in the 1988 presidential race.
Ex-Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, a Republican, came under fire last year after a man whose sentence he commuted in 2000 killed four cops. Clinton's 2001 pardon, on his last day in office, of indicted tax evader Marc Rich also was controversial because Rich's ex-wife was a Democratic donor.
"The fear of the one case that goes bad haunts every politician," says New York University's law professor Rachel Barkow.
Also fueling the increase in petitions:
• Growth in the federal prison population, now at 210,159.
• Sentencing guidelines set in 1986, which Congress is trying to reverse, that punish crimes involving crack more severely than those involving powdered cocaine.
• The end to parole for federal prisoners in 1984.
When Obama vowed to reverse cocaine sentencing rules, prisoner advocates hoped he also would curb long-term sentences. Instead, "he has been one of the slowest-acting presidents in history," says Jay Rorty of the American Civil Liberties Union.
White House spokesman Ben LaBolt did not comment on the clemency requests, but said Obama has asked for an updated mercy policy.
Former Bush lawyer Kenneth Lee urged Obama to act with "vigor," saying the power to pardon "is an important tool to provide a second chance."