The Awesome Power of Mercy

We all think about resolutions in January. Most of the changes we contemplate are less than earth-shattering, but the world seems to be shattering on its own this time around, so that got me thinking bigger.

There are people who would benefit from a huge change this year, and there’s one person who can resolve on his own to give them that.

The United States Constitution gives President Obama precious few imperial powers — checks and balances were the order of the day — but it does give him one, lifted straight from England’s Prerogative of Kings, without modification:

Article II, Section 2: “The President shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.”

The framers of our constitution debated changes and limits, but in the end the delegates decided it needed none. They gave the president the same power that King George III had — in order to express with utmost clarity our nation’s character and courage.

The world longs for such clarity and courage right now.

Obama has nattered around the edges of justice reform for a couple of years. Racial disparities in drug laws and capital punishment have caught his attention. In November, Obama instructed federal agencies to “ban the box” that asked all applicants if they’ve ever been convicted of a crime.

But the presidential pardon is completely different. It’s not designed as a tool to temper government policy. It’s a display of the awesome power of mercy, for all the world to see — no checks, no balances.

President Washington pardoned the perpetrators of the Whiskey Rebellion. It quelled the fracas immediately. President Carter pardoned everyone who evaded the draft during the Vietnam War, and approximately 100,000 criminals were forgiven and welcomed home. No president since has used his power so sweepingly.

Obama could pardon every federal inmate and parolee named Phil — without explaining why. That would send a strong message to the world, but it would also reunite families and help a bunch of guys named Phil.

I called Paul Solomon, Executive Director of Sponsors Inc. He works every day with felons who are trying to get their lives back on track after leaving prison.

What if President Obama surprised everyone by inserting into his State of the Union speech that all federal convictions for marijuana possession would be erased? Or that all federal felons who have served their time and completed parole will be pardoned, rewinding their history and expunging their record?

“That would be phenomenal!” Solomon told me. “And sensible, too.”

“Look at crime rates, because that’s what really matters to people,” Solomon said. “Since 1969, those rates have stayed roughly the same. But our incarceration rate over that period has more than quadrupled. What does that tell you?”

It tells me we can combat terror much closer to home. The latest figures show that 27 percent of all Americans now have a criminal history. In an age of electronic records, there’s no hope those histories will be forgotten — unless they’re forgiven.

Solomon had more statistics to share from his work: “Studies have shown that if a person with a criminal history stays out of trouble for five years, their chance of committing another crime is the same as somebody who has never been in trouble.”

Obama could order a sweeping reform, with no due process. If he pardoned every felon who was released in 2010 or earlier and has had no criminal activity since, that would put tens of thousands of upstanding citizens back on the voter roles.

US federal prisons currently hold 205,000 inmates in 122 facilities. The White House could simply require each warden to immediately name ten inmates who no longer belong behind bars, plus another 90 who deserve their reprieve before Obama leaves office. How would releasing six percent of that bloated population affect inmate behavior and morale?

Obama cannot stop every brutal beheading, but he can set some captives free. We gave one person that power. Alexander Hamilton called it a display of “humanity and good policy.” Obama should use it, for all the world to see.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.