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Journalism in the Public Interest

Obama Issues 12 Pardons. That’s Still Far Fewer Than Predecessors

The president’s 18 commutations put him ahead of recent presidents but his use of pardons still lags behind Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

President Obama, shown in the Cabinet Room on Wednesday, is still well behind recent presidents in his use of pardons. (Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images)

Update, Dec. 18, 2014: This story has been updated to reflect President Obama’s commutations of three Cuban spies’ sentences.

President Obama pardoned 12 people and commuted the sentences of 8 others, the Justice Department announced on Wednesday.  Those actions still leave Obama well behind recent presidents in his use of pardons.

A ProPublica analysis of Justice Department statistics in 2012 found that Obama had pardoned fewer people than George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush or Ronald Reagan at comparable points in their administrations. That still holds true for Clinton, the younger Bush and Reagan, the two-term presidents in that group. Wednesday's announcement brings the total number of people Obama has pardoned in almost six years in office to 64. He has denied 1,487 pardon applications.

The eight commutations announced on Wednesday mean that Obama has commuted the sentences of 18 Americans, more than any of his two-term predecessors through their first six years in office, according to Justice Department statistics. (The president also commuted the sentences of three Cuban spies — one of whom is American citizen — on Wednesday as part of a deal to normalize relations with Cuba.)

Commutations allow federal prisoners to go home early, while pardons let those convicted of crimes regain their rights to vote, possess firearms and get business licenses, and can make it easier to adopt children and pursue certain careers.

Last year, Obama commuted the sentence of Clarence Aaron, who had spent two decades in prison after being sentenced to three life terms on crack cocaine charges in 1993. The White House had ordered a review of Aaron's case in 2012 after ProPublica and The Washington Post reported that the Justice Department's pardon attorney, Ronald Rodgers, had left out critical information when he recommended that President George W. Bush deny Aaron's application for clemency.

The Justice Department replaced Rodgers in April and announced that it would prioritize clemency applications from low-level, nonviolent offenders who met certain criteria. Those criteria include being currently in federal prison, having served at least a decade with good conduct, not having a significant criminal history or a history of violence. They also targeted those who were convicted of federal crimes for which they likely would have received substantially less harsh sentences if convicted today.

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday. ProPublica and The Washington Post also found in 2011 that white criminals seeking pardons were almost four times as likely to succeed as those of other races, which prompted a study by the Justice Department. That study is still underway and is not expected to be completed until 2015.

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