Clemency statistics are now widely kept by the Justice Department and can be easily analyzed. It is useful to look at the numbers to determine how a president used his clemency power.
Office of the Pardon Attorney
The Office of the Pardon Attorney, under the purview of the Department of Justice, is the office that assists the president in granting clemency. The Office accepts all the clemency petitions, investigates their claims and worthiness, and will make a recommendation to the president.
The Office now provides a thorough graph of statistics of clemency numbers starting with President William McKinley. The graphs are divided by year, by how many petitions were received, and how many petitions were granted. The petitions granted section is then classified by what kind of clemency was granted: pardon, commutation, respite, and remissions. There is also a section for petitions denied and how many petitions were closed without presidential action.
Clemency by the Numbers: A Look Through History
Breaking the numbers down, in the early 1900s, the number of clemency petitions received was significantly lower than the late 1900s. During the presidencies of McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and Taft number of clemency petitions received ranged anywhere from 300 to 800 petitions per year. Woodrow Wilson was the first president to hit the 1,000 petitions received mark. In the last year of his presidency, 1921, 1,224 petitions were received. President Wilson’s presidency was marked by the beginning and end of World War I. Other presidents who served during major wartime periods and those who served as president immediately after wartime, see significant increases in the numbers of clemency petitions. Both Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, who followed President Wilson, saw most of their years with clemency petition numbers hovering over the 1,000 mark.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt granted the most pardons of any president. One reason that was helpful for Roosevelt to achieve this statistic is that he served the longest as president, 1932 to 1944. In total, President Franklin Roosevelt granted 2,819 pardons. He is followed by his successor, President Harry Truman, who granted 1,913 pardons. President Dwight D. Eisenhower comes in at third with 1,110 pardons.
Clemency by the Numbers: The Current Era
While more clemency petitions are submitted with the modern presidents, the number of pardons granted has decreased. President H.W. Bush granted the least amount of pardons with 74. President George W. Bush granted 189. And President Barack Obama granted 212.
While the Office’s statistics are extremely thorough, they do not include clemency that was granted through proclamations or executive orders. These actions were taken by both President Ford and President Carter who forgave thousands of individuals who evaded the Vietnam draft.
This clemency statistic most likely correlates to the increasing political aspect of granting a pardon. A pardon erases a crime entirely. It typically comes after a complete sentence, or part of a sentence has been served. A pardon can be seen as a form of mercy and a way that a president can right an injustice.
For recent presidents, pardons have come with serious criticism. President Trump granted his first pardon to Joe Arpaio. Arpaio was a former sheriff in Arizona who was convicted of contempt of court for violating a court order to stop his police officers from discriminating against individuals based on their supposed immigration status. President Ford pardoned President Nixon, with many people believing that this stunted President Ford’s presidential campaign. President Bill Clinton pardoned his half-brother who spent a year in prison for a cocaine charge. President Jimmy Carter pardoned Patty Hearst, the heiress who spent two years in prison for her part in a 1974 bank robbery.
Of all the presidents’ statistics, President Obama’s clemency numbers stand out. President Obama received the most clemency petitions since statistics were compiled. Throughout his eight years, President Obama received 36,544 petitions. Of those petitions, he granted 1,927. All were commutations, with the exception of 212 pardons.
Obama’s Clemency Initiative
President Obama’s administration publicly asked for clemency petitions. Called the Clemency Initiative, President Obama decided to use the clemency power to make a political statement and to hopefully implement new legislation. This Initiative asked those who met certain criteria to apply for a commutation of their sentence.
- Those currently serving federal sentences for crimes that if they committed today, they would serve a significantly lesser amount of time,
- Non-violent, low-level offenders,
- Served at least ten years of their sentence,
- No significant criminal history,
- Demonstrated good conduct in prison, and
- No history of violence prior to or during their current term of imprisonment.
The Clemency Initiative was a way for President Obama to right injustice. Many of these older drug sentences disproportionately affected minority criminals. This was a huge platform for President Obama during his administration. On his last day in office, January 19, 2017, President Obama granted 330 commutations. This final group was the most number of clemencies granted in one day in U.S. history. President Obama’s legacy did not come without controversy. President Obama commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning who was convicted of stealing state secrets and giving them to Wikileaks. He also granted commutation to Oscar Lopez Rivera, a Puerto Rican independence activist, who was a member of the Armed Forces of National Liberation. This organization was labeled a terrorist organization which killed people during the 1970s and 1980s in bomb attacks.
Comparing Presidential Clemency Grant Percentages
While many applaud the number of clemency petitions granted by President Obama, he is actually at the bottom when it comes to percentages of petitions granted. This is, of course, because of his high number of clemency petitions received. According to Pew Research, President Obama granted 5% of the clemency petitions received. President G.W. Bush only granted 2% of petitions received. President Clinton and President Bush had clemency grant ratings at 6% and 5%, respectively.
When looking at some of the earlier presidents, there is a sharp contrast. President Truman granted 41% of the clemency petitions he received. This is the most of any president with statistics kept. Falling in close behind him is President Taft with 39%, President Wilson with 38%, and President Nixon with 36%.
Clemency statistics shed some light on the power of the clemency process and how presidents rank against each other.