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Today President Obama performs the annual light-hearted tradition of the turkey pardon. But behind the fluff is a chillingly stingy record of pardons for actual, you know, people . Brandon Watson lays it out:

[T]he Office of the President has over the past several administrations been absurdly stingy with pardons, and the Obama administration has done very, very poorly with it — only George W. Bush took longer to give the first presidential pardon (and that not much), and his commutation record isn’t any better.  To date he has a mere 22 pardons and 1 commutation to his name . This is truly awful. Further, most of these were for minor crimes occurring a long time ago, yet the Obama White House is still notoriously slow with them — cleared by the DOJ, it still takes months before anything is done about them. We should be well over a hundred pardons and commutations by now, even in the most stingy of administrations.

Justin E. H. Smith  thinks that the issue of pardons boils down to one’s support for or opposition to the death penalty. I’m not so sure, though opposition to the death penalty and stinginess with pardons seem to share at least one motivation: the understandable fear of making a wrong choice, of being held responsible for the death of an innocent man or the further crimes of an unreformed one.

I would want to insist that capital punishment and executive pardons actually are separate issues—-one of justice, the other of mercy. To pardon a guilty criminal is a very different act from failing to give him a just sentence, and politicians who do so should not be caricatured as “soft on crime.”

P.S. The likely Republican nominee’s  record  on pardons is even worse.

P.P.S. (In response to a comment.) The point of a pardon is not what a person deserves. It is about the granting of something undeserved. About mercy. The loss of that ideal in our political life is what I lament.

Matthew Schmitz is the deputy editor of  First Things . You can follow him on  Twitter .

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