On Pardoning Turkeys

Above Photo: White House photo.

While Joe Biden is busy pardoning two turkeys, how many human beings has he pardoned since becoming president?

The White House on Friday revealed the names of the recipients of two pardons President Biden plans to issue—Peanut Butter and Jelly. The pardons are, of course, for two Thanksgiving turkeys, part of a stupid annual tradition where the president saves two turkeys from the Thanksgiving table.

The tradition began in 1863, when Abraham Lincoln pardoned a turkey, an act that apparently wasn’t even reported in the media until 1865. By the early 20th century, it was common practice to give friends and family members live poultry as an early Christmas gift and to have them “pardon” the turkey or chicken as part of a “poultryless Thursday,” according to the White House Historical Society. How quaint.

Most American seem to like this tradition. Every year we see pictures of presidents standing outside the West Wing with random citizens, everybody smiling, with two confused turkeys standing on a table on front of them. The President then signs the pardon certificate and wishes everybody a Happy Thanksgiving.

I hate this tradition. I find it to be insulting and demeaning when there are so many formerly (and still) incarcerated Americans who deserve a pardon. And while Joe Biden is busy pardoning two turkeys, how many human beings has he pardoned since becoming president? Zero. Not a single one.

How to Get a Pardon

There is a hard-and-fast process for getting a pardon. First, a person who has been convicted of a federal crime must wait for five years after the expiration of his sentence, as well as any probation or parole. He must then go to the website of the office of the U.S. Pardon Attorney and fill out an electronic application.

The former prisoner must be able to prove that he has shown public remorse for his crime and that he has led a productive and positive life since leaving prison. That sounds easy enough. With recidivism rates under 50 percent, you would think that there were plenty of eligible pardon applicants. But that’s not how the system works in real life.

First, the Office of the U.S. Pardon Attorney was supposed to be independent of the Justice Department. Indeed, the office was supposed to be housed in the White House as part of the Executive Office of the President. But it’s not. It’s housed at the Justice Department at 905 Pennsylvania Avenue NW in Washington.

When a person applies for a pardon, the application works its way through the Justice Department’s bureaucracy and is then referred to the FBI for a background investigation. Regardless of what the FBI background investigation finds, the investigators always interview the case’s prosecutors and others associated with the prosecution. According to the U.S. Pardon Attorney’s website:

“The Pardon Attorney routinely requests the United States Attorney in the district of conviction or the Assistant Attorney General to provide comments and recommendations on clemency cases … The views of the United States Attorney are given considerable weight in determining what recommendations the Department should make to the President … The Pardon Attorney also routinely requests the United States Attorney to solicit the views and recommendation of the sentencing judge.”

Most Are Ignored

This all sounds like the U.S. Pardon Attorney is trying really, really hard to be fair. In fact, it’s the opposite that’s true. Historically, the investigations have been for the purpose of coming up with reasons—any reasons—to not grant the pardon. So far during the Biden Administration, there have been 191 applications for pardons. Sixty-three have been formally denied. The remaining 128 have been ignored. That’s 0 percent.

During the Obama Administration, there were 3,395 applications for pardons. Two hundred twelve were granted, 1,708 were formally denied, and the rest were ignored. That’s an approval rate of 6.2 percent.

The Trump Administration was a little better, at least on paper, approving 144 of 1,969 applications, for an approval rate of 7.3 percent. Many of those approved by Trump, however, were cronies, political supporters, convicted war criminals and Republican insiders.

The bottom line seems to be this: Our government talks a good talk about rehabilitation, forgiveness, and reintegration into society. But it’s all nonsense. So is what they tell us about correcting injustices. Why else to you think Leonard Peltier is still rotting in prison? Why is Julian Assange on trial for his life? Why is Ed Snowden in exile?

It makes far more sense to me to right those wrongs committed by our courts and prosecutors and to forgive those Americans who may have committed a crime, but who have lived good and productive lives after having paid their debt to society. It makes more sense than it does to have a laugh while pardoning a turkey.

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