Pardon people, not turkeys, Mr President

Why is Obama so reluctant to reprieve the many Americans trapped in excessive life-without-parole sentences? A little mercy would be a true cause for giving thanks

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As expected, Popcorn and Caramel were spared. In a hokey ceremony at the White House last week – as much a part of the Thanksgiving ritual here as wall-to-wall televised football games and the storming of the stores by Christmas bargain-hunters – these two turkeys were pardoned by President Obama, in contrast to the estimated 46 million of their species who graced American dinner tables last Thursday.

And not only that. The fortunate birds had spent the previous night at the ritzy Willard Hotel nearby, in a room costing us humans $400 (£250) a night. They will now live out the rest of their days unmolested at a turkey farm in Virginia. And after this exercise of avian mercy, Obama might get around to treating his fellow citizens in the same way.

Quite why this president has been so reluctant to use a specifically granted constitutional power is not clear. It could, I suppose, reflect a former law professor's reverence for the majesty of American justice. It may be a reluctance to intervene on matters of race. Blacks are disproportionately victim of excessive sentences that scream for pardon or commutation, but Obama has bent over backwards while in office to avoid seeming an excessively pro-black president.

Or maybe he's just mindful of the criticism that swamped Bill Clinton when, on his last day in office, he pardoned the convicted tax evader and Iran sanctions-buster Marc Rich, in a widely suspected quid pro quo for millions of dollars of donations to Clinton's Democratic Party. Whatever the reason, however, the fact remains that Obama has issued fewer pardons than any of his predecessors.

Harry Truman, the most clement of modern presidents, handed out 2,044, while Richard Nixon, not exactly celebrated as a "soft-on-crime" guy, granted 926. Of late, pardons and commutations have been declining. Clinton doled out 456, and George W Bush only 176. But even that paltry figure eclipses Obama for whom, five years into his presidency, the figure is just 39 (of which 29 went to people not in jail but on probation).

His reluctance is all the more mystifying in that there are no more elections to fight, no more voters to win over – while any fuss that might arise from a more generous use of pardons would be the merest blip compared to the furore over his health-care reforms. One thing though is for sure. Never has the need for a little extra-curricular judicial mercy been greater.

Obama might, for instance, begin with Stephanie George of Florida. A first-time offender, she is currently serving life without parole after being convicted of belonging to a crack-cocaine conspiracy, even though the judge at her trial acknowledged she had been little more than the girlfriend of the real culprit. But his hands were tied; such are the crass exigencies of the "war on drugs", and the mandatory minimum sentencing used to prosecute it.

Or take Robert Riley, by every account a gentle soul, who was found guilty 20 years ago in Iowa of peddling tiny quantities of LSD at a rock concert. He was married and a father of two, with a job. Unfortunately, he had twice previously been convicted of minor marijuana offences. So life without parole it was, wrecking a family for ever.

These are but two cases highlighted in A Living Death, a chilling recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union, which documents 3,278 cases where non-violent offenders have been put behind bars for life. The true figure is almost certainly higher. Many are first-time drug offenders. Most are black, and, in some cases, says the ACLU, racial profiling played a part in their arrest. Others are mentally ill, their crimes directly related to their condition.

America belongs to the 20 per cent of countries that even have life-without-parole sentences on the books (Britain is one of just two in Europe) and most of these countries confine the jail term to murder convictions. Even China allows a review of life sentences after 25 years. Yet the number of "Lwops" here only grows.

In part, the trend is the other side of the coin of fewer death sentences; Lwops (which can be pronounced El-wops) have quadrupled since 1992, even as several states have abandoned capital punishment, and the number of executions is less than half its late-1990s peak. But in a state such as Louisiana the consequences have been bleak indeed; an astonishing one in nine of all inmates are "Lwop-ers".

Not that prisondom in Louisiana wants it that way. Burl Cain, warden of the infamous state penitentiary at Angola , described the situation to the ACLU as "ridiculous … the name of our business is corrections, but everybody forgets what 'correction' means; to correct deviant behaviour". If an inmate can go back to being a productive citizen, asks Cain, "then why are we keeping them here?". He might also have noted that study after study has shown that recidivism declines steeply with age.

None of this is lost on many judges, forced to impose sentences they consider – and declare to be – absurdly excessive. Nor is it lost on Eric Holder, Obama's Attorney General and as such the country's top law-enforcement official, who has instructed federal judges not to use mandatory minimums for lesser, non-violent drug offences. Nor is it lost on some in Congress, where at least two Bills calling for common-sense sentencing have been introduced.

But progress is agonising slow. Perhaps no more is to be expected from a country that incarcerates more of its citizens than any other, 743 per 100,000 inhabitants, some 2.3m in all. In these hard economic times however, that figure contains the seed of policy change. When budgets for almost every other public service are being trimmed, America simply can't afford to keep so many people in jail – least of all non-dangerous people condemned to die behind bars for offences that elsewhere wouldn't warrant jail time at all.

President Obama can't do it by himself. But the pardon of real people, as well as a couple of turkeys, each Thanksgiving would at least be a start.

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