CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Love on Obama's Clemency Legacy

Margaret Colgate Love has posted Obama's Clemency Legacy: An Assessment (Federal Sentencing Reporter (Forthcoming)) on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Shortly before the end of his term, President Obama published an article in the Harvard Law Review discussing his efforts to promote criminal justice reform. In it he described an ambitious approach to pardoning in terms that hark back to a time in our history when this presidential power played a routine operational role in a primitive federal justice system. While acknowledging that clemency is “no substitute for achieving lasting changes to federal sentencing law through legislation,” he described it as “a way to restore a degree of justice, fairness, and proportionality to the system.” He said that he hoped “to set a precedent that will make it easier for future Presidents, governors, and other public officials to use it for good.”

This essay is a very preliminary assessment of the Obama clemency legacy in terms of his own stated goals.

Was he right about the proper role of pardon in the justice system, and did he accomplish his objectives in using his power? On the one hand, his expansive view of the pardon power is hard to square with a system of checks and balances, and carries with it an expectation of procedural and substantive fairness that may be hard to deliver on. At the same time, his belief that federal drug sentences have produced widespread injustice is widely shared, and his determination to try to do something about it is commendable. But the means he chose to accomplish his goals were fated to fall short, and his neglect of other less-fraught “second chance” clemency opportunities throughout his tenure may have made it harder rather than easier for his successor to use the power. In the end, by some measures he left the pardon power in a worse condition than he found it.

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