Reimagining the Constitutional Pardon Power: Does the President Have a Role in Making Drug Sentences Fairer?

Date: 
May 10, 2012

On Thursday, May 10, 2012, at 10:00 a.m., the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy and the Open Society Foundations hosted “Reimagining the Constitutional Pardon Power: Does the President Have a Role in Making Drug Sentences Fairer?” In Article II of the U.S. Constitution, the President’s pardon power resides with little fuss or fanfare, likely a result of its infrequent use. Article II, Section 2 provides that the President "shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment." Despite this explicit authority, and the thousands of clemency petitions received by the Department of Justice each Administration – close to 6,000 such petitions have been received by the Obama Administration thus far – the pardon power is a tool rarely used in our criminal justice system. As the Administration wraps up its first term in office having granted 23 clemency petitions, we considered whether the pardon power should be used as a tool for balancing unfair sentencing laws in the criminal justice system. The President took a step in this direction when he commuted the sentence of federal prisoner Eugenia Jennings, who was serving a 22-year sentence for a nonviolent, crack cocaine offense. Should clemency in this context become customary? Is there a viable pardon process that can be used? If pardon power is exercised regularly, how do we ensure fair and nondiscriminatory procedures? Are governors setting an example at the state level for how pardon powers should be used? These questions and others were considered by the program’s panel of experts.