The problem with Obama’s big push to commute prison sentences

From The Washington Post:

President Obama commuted the sentences of 214 federal prisoners on Wednesday. At least 67 of them were serving life sentences, many of those for nonviolent drug crimes.

The White House points out that Obama has granted “more commutations than the previous nine presidents combined and more commutations than any individual president in nearly a century.” This is true, but it’s also a slightly misleading statistic.

When it comes to granting relief to people convicted of crimes, presidents typically have two options: They can commute a prisoner’s sentence, or they can pardon the prisoner completely. A commutation “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,” according to the Justice Department.

A pardon, on the other hand, “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.”

In other words, as legal scholar Michael Walden of NYU once explained, a “pardon wipes out the conviction while a commutation leaves the conviction intact but wipes out the punishment.”

Obama has been issuing commutations at a rapid pace in his last few years in office. But he’s only issued 70 pardons so far, according to the Justice Department. That’s fewer pardons than any president going all the way back to McKinley, the earliest president for which the Justice Department tracks clemency statistics.

For a fuller picture of presidential clemency actions, …

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