On Bastille Day, No Mercy for Prisoners from Sarkozy or Obama

Charles Thévenin, "La prise de la Bastille," 1793. Musée Carnavalet, Paris.

 The following Bastille Day Post appeared this morning on Sara Mayeux’s Prison Law Blog:  

On this day 221 years ago, revolutionaries stormed a prison and, as they say in History 101, the modern world began…  

Traditionally, the French president would grant a mass pardon every July 14, but President Sarkozy has discontinued the practice. In that respect, he is not dissimilar from his American counterpart. Although historically most U.S. presidents have used their executive clemency powers within 100 days of their inauguration, Obama recently reached his 536th day in office without granting a single pardon or commutation — surpassing John Adams and catapulting into third place on the list of presidents who have waited the longest. Nos. 1 and 2 are George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.  

Sarkozy’s motivations are a mystery to me (as they apparently are to many French people). But why has Obama been so reluctant to issue pardons–or even commutations to a few of the thousands of prisoners serving absurdly long sentences, as a result of national trends of the past 30 years? Is he simply following the lead of other recent presidents? Or, as the first African American president–and one who is constantly facing (absurd) charges of radicalism and reverse racism–is he afraid of appearing soft on crime?  

If the latter is true, it’s not excusable, but it is understandable. Conservative media figures are already bent upon depicting Eric Holder’s Justice Department as having a pro-black bias; the phony “scandal” involving the Department of Justice’s decision not to prosecute the New Black Panther Party has lately been called a “21st-Century Willie Horton” ploy.  And this is only the latest and stickiest of countless accusations of favoritism toward African Americans. Last month, Iowa Congressman Steve King said that he “knew of no instance where Obama’s racial favoritism wasn’t a factor in his decision making.” The right-wing National Legal and Policy Center even managed to find “racial favoritism” in the financial regulation bill passed by the House earlier this month. This kind of race-baiting would be sure to kick in big time if Obama pardoned or commuted the sentence of someone who happened to be black.  

Nonetheless, for the thousands of people who may be undeservedly languishing in America’s prisons, it will be small comfort to know that the president is once again allowing his actions to be shaped by a right-wing agenda.


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