President Barack Obama quietly made a little bit of history in 2016: He has officially used his clemency powers — to pardon and otherwise shorten people’s sentences — more than any other president since Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s.
The Pew Research Center has a wonderful chart to prove it (which excludes Gerald Ford’s clemency actions for Vietnam War draft dogers since they were done through nontraditional means):
As the chart shows, Obama has granted clemency to 1,093 people, mostly nonviolent drug offenders, over eight years — a total that includes 1,023 commutations (which shorten sentences) and 70 pardons. (As Dara Lind explained for Vox, almost all of Obama’s use of clemency came during the past year.) That’s more than any president since Johnson, who granted clemency 1,187 times — through 226 commutations, one remission (which reduces financial penalties), and a whopping 960 pardons — during his five years as president.
It’s also true that Obama has received far more requests for clemency (nearly 35,000, while all of his predecessors since 1897 got fewer than 14,000), in large part thanks to his administration’s initiative to undo punitive prison sentences, as well as the broader shifting climate surrounding criminal justice reform. So in percentage terms, he’s only granted 3 percent of requests — putting him behind every president before George W. Bush.
But another way to look at the chart is through the history of criminal justice.
Around the 1970s, as crime rose in a historic crime wave, it suddenly became less acceptable for the president to use his clemency powers — maybe because it would signal that he was “soft on crime.” So Richard Nixon, who would declare a war on drugs, would be the first president in at least 65 years to serve more than one term and grant clemency to fewer than 1,000 people.
Then in the ’80s, Ronald Reagan, who dramatically ramped up the federal war on drugs through measures like the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, would be the first in at least 80 years to serve more than one term and grant clemency to fewer than 500 people.
The decline generally held afterward — until Obama. Following the massive drop in crime over the past couple of decades and the Great Recession, there has been a huge shift toward reevaluating the value of “tough on crime” policies that lock people up for very long periods of time, costing states and the federal government tens of billions of dollars even as most of the research shows mass incarceration hasn’t been effective at reducing crime. Obama’s more aggressive use of clemency is part of that shift.
Advocates have called on Obama to do much more. But at the very least, he’s already done more than his predecessors.