Today, President Obama 'pardons' two turkeys.
One month ago, the nation's oldest prisoner, 92-year-old Drayton Curry, died in prison, still waiting after two years for the Office of the Pardon Attorney even to get back to him on his request for clemency so he could spend his last few years with his family. Curry was a World War II Army veteran who had had some off-and-on-again problems with drugs. When he was caught again in 1991, four years after having been put on five-year probation, he was sentenced to life as a career offender. As he became increasingly frail in prison, he submitted a pardon application in early 2011, which noted his frail health, his exemplary behavior in prison, and his active involvement in anti-drug counseling for young prisoners.
Now, there is no question that Drayton Curry was guilty of at least some of the charges brought against him -- the charge that put him on probation was a relatively minor one, but he was arrested for a heroin transaction, caught in the act. But the point of the constitutional power pardon is not just to prevent miscarriages of justice but to make sure that the application of law considers the actual circumstances in which people find themselves. The vast majority of pardon applications are from people who have already served their sentences. There are lots of things former felons are restricted from, and so they are essentially applying for a restoration of their rights. Others are cases, as with Drayton Curry, in which the prisoner has become seriously sick or frail, asking to be allowed to go back to their family for their last days. A number of other cases are people who are serving sentences that would be counted excessive by current law -- that is, the sentencing requirements have changed, so that the sentence for the crime they committed is now much lighter than it was when they were convicted.
P. J. Ruckman, Jr. has a table of the clemency rates of recent presidents. President Obama has in his four years pardoned 22 people and commuted 1 sentence; since Thomas Jefferson, only George W. Bush, in his first term, has been so stingy with the pardons.
There are reasons why the pardon power is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. If you look at discussions of it by the Founding Fathers, people like Alexander Hamilton or James Wilson, their arguments clearly have the implication that the pardon power is an integral and extremely important part of our justice system, one in which we make clear the fundamental principle of American governance, that government must be for the people. Law is unbending; but our application of it must take into account the actual circumstances in which people find themselves. And that is the whole point: the law, all the law, serves us, not we it. It is very important for Americans to start respecting the pardon power again.