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Obama Issues Rare Pardons, With More to Come

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

President Barack Obama granted clemency to 20 people Wednesday in a relatively rare show of leniency from him — with the administration promising more to come.  

Obama cut short prison times for eight people convicted of nonviolent drug offenses and vacated the convictions of 12 others, the White House announced.  

The commutations are the result of an April 23 initiative by Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole with the direction of President Obama encouraging qualified inmates to petition for clemency. “The president’s actions today in providing clemency to eight individuals who were sentenced under outdated and unfair laws sustains his commitment to bring fairness to our criminal justice system," Cole said in a statement. "While all eight were properly held accountable for their criminal actions, their punishments did not fit their crimes, and sentencing laws and policies have since been updated to ensure more fairness for low-level offenders."  

Cole said the department will seek to identify other people deserving shorter sentences.  

The announcement brings the president's total number of clemencies granted up from 62 to 82. Obama has now granted 18 commutations and 64 pardons - according to the Department of Justice website . That still makes Obama among the stingier presidents when it comes to the use of the pardon power. A number of lawmakers in the president's own party have urged him to accelerate his use of the power. President Bush approved 200 petitions for clemency during his time in office, and Clinton approved over 400.  

Both clemency and pardons are a form of forgiveness from the federal government to those convicted of federal crimes. A pardon absolves a prior conviction and cancels out a sentence if the petitioner is still in prison, while a commutation cuts a sentence short.  

Wednesday's recipients of commutations are all serving time for drug offenses, including cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin distribution offenses. Four were serving life terms. Their sentences will expire in April and June of 2015. It comes amid bipartisan efforts to reduce mandatory minimum sentences, especially for nonviolent drug offenses, which can send people to prison for decades.  

The pardons forgive convictions ranging from 1964 to 1997.  

Obama also did not pardon the late boxing great Jack Johnson. U.S. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., have repeatedly sought a pardon for Johnson, an African-American who was convicted in 1913 for the then-crime of transporting a white girlfriend across state lines. They sent a letter to Obama in February again urging a posthumous pardon, noting that Congress in the past has unanimously urged the president to grant one.  

Petitions for clemency are reviewed and investigated by the pardon attorney in the Department of Justice. Deborah Leff was appointed to the position on Nov. 2, after serving as acting pardon attorney since April 30 after Ronald Rodgers stepped down from the post as the Obama Administration sought to increase federal clemecy approvals .  

According to a website maintained by the DOJ, the president has received over 17,000 requests for clemency during his presidency, denied a total of just over 8,000 petitions, while 2,000 petitions have been closed without presidential action.  

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report. The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.