Some historical pardons Neyfakh points out are:
· 1800: Thomas Jefferson pardoned individuals convicted under the Alien and Sedition Act, which he considered unconstitutional
· 1919: Woodrow Wilson pardoned 500 people convicted under liquor laws, to signal his opposition to Prohibition
· 1960s: John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson reduced the sentences of more than 200 drug offenders convicted under mandatory minimum sentences in the 1956 Narcotics and Control Act
In each of these cases, the president used his pardon power to send a clear policy message that a law was unjust. Each of the laws above was later repealed. Neyfakh comments that in his second term “President Obama could use [pardons] in a similarly principled way, highlighting whole categories of individuals whose lives have been ruined by policies he sees as unjust or unduly harsh—injecting urgency into, say, the national debate over mass incarceration or the disproportionate impact of drug laws on minorities.”
On the state level, we here in Illinois saw the pardon used in such a way not too long ago. In 2003, Governor George Ryan commuted the death sentences of everyone on or waiting to be sent to death row in Illinois. The blanket act affected 167 individuals, who were issued life sentences instead. Ryan saw it important to act to avoid any possibility for a mistaken execution. (13 wrongly convicted death row inmates had recently been exonerated.) Obama was an Illinois State Senator during this time and is no doubt familiar with these pardons. Only time will tell if Obama chooses to use his pardon power in a similar way before he leaves office.