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Barack Obama’s presidency has been defined by reliance on constitutionally dubious executive actions to implement policies opposed by the public or Congress.

But there’s one area where he has clear constitutional authority to act alone, and has, and that is the granting of clemency to criminals. Last Monday, the president pardoned 78 felons, and commuted the sentences of another 153, the most ever in one day. In total, Obama has issued 1,324 clemencies, including 1,176 commutations and 148 pardons.

Pardons erase legal liabilities attendant on conviction for crime. Commutations shorten sentences but don’t eliminate legal liability or restore lost rights.

Obama may appear to have pardoned and commuted on massive scale, but he has actually pardoned fewer people than George W. Bush, Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan, and granted fewer clemencies than Harry Truman and Woodrow Wilson.

Most of those he’s granted clemency served long sentences for nonviolent drug crimes committed by people sentenced under stringent anti-drug laws passed decades ago. Most have been in prison more than 10 years, behaved well, and would not have received such a lengthy sentence under today’s revised laws. Many went to drug rehabilitation and education programs while locked up.

The 1,324 granted clemency were the most sympathetic cases among more than 30,000 who applied under a rigorous clemency process launched by the Department of Justice in 2014.

Consider the case of Sharanda Jones, who was convicted on one count of conspiracy to traffic cocaine. Despite having no criminal history, she was given a life sentence without parole. She served 17 years in prison before being granted a commutation in August.

Obama is right not to issue blanket pardons to illegal immigrants or nonviolent drug criminals, as some activists demand. Better to consider each case on its merits.

Commutations are a sensible way of correcting past excesses. Pardons are less justifiable. Those pardoned by Obama had already completed their sentences, were leading productive, law abiding lives, and in the words of the White House, were “contributing to the community in a meaningful way.” But isn’t that just another way of saying they were living normal lives? Shouldn’t pardons be reserved for people who perform exceptional services to society?

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Instead of giving blanket absolution and wiping away all trace of a convict’s criminal past, it would be better and fairer to help convicts assimilate back into society by reducing the barriers they face to getting good jobs.

Obama’s grants of clemency are, in a way, acts of desperation by a president concerned that his successor, who emphasizes law and order, will abjure reform. They’re also a response to Congress’ failure to agree reforms, especially of excessive mandatory sentencing and giving judges discretion. In many cases that prompted Obama’s clemency, the sentencing judge thought the sentence too severe but had no discretion because of mandatory minimums.

Obama probably isn’t finished granting clemencies. Congress should reform the criminal justice and penal system. If it doesn’t, presidents will act by themselves.

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