Facts are under assault in 2020.

We can't fight back misinformation about the election and COVID-19 without you. Support trusted, factual information with a tax deductible contribution to PolitiFact

More Info

I would like to contribute

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a NBC Town Hall at Perez Art Museum, Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, in Miami, as moderator Lester Holt listens. (AP) Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a NBC Town Hall at Perez Art Museum, Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, in Miami, as moderator Lester Holt listens. (AP)

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a NBC Town Hall at Perez Art Museum, Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, in Miami, as moderator Lester Holt listens. (AP)

Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman October 6, 2020

Biden inflated the number of clemency actions by Obama

If Your Time is short

  • Obama issued 1,927 pardons and commutations during his two terms.

  • Trump has issued 38 clemency actions so far in his first term.

During a town hall in Miami, NBC’s Lester Holt asked former Vice President Joe Biden about the Obama administration’s record on criminal justice reform.

Holt said that President Donald Trump and Biden’s critics will say that Biden had almost 50 years in government and wasn’t able to accomplish criminal justice reform including when the Obama/Biden administration had a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress. 

Biden pushed back with a defense of the Obama/Biden administration’s efforts related to criminal justice.

"Yeah, we did. 18,000 people got clemency," Biden said. "He got two or three, what he's talking about."

We thought the 18,000 clemency figure for Obama sounded high based on our fact-check of a Facebook post comparing the pardon records of Obama and Trump. It was.

We asked the Biden campaign about what he was referring to when he said "he got two or three." The Biden campaign didn’t reply to our questions seeking clarification.

Obama’s clemency actions were a fraction of what Biden said

Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution says the president "shall have the Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment." 

The general term for these presidential actions is clemency, but there are two types. A pardon, described as an "expression of the President’s forgiveness," is issued after a person’s conviction or after a person’s sentence has been completed. It restores rights, such as the right to vote or run for office. A commutation reduces a sentence, either totally or partially, but it does not remove the conviction.

Over his two terms, Obama issued 212 pardons and 1,715 commutations, for a total of 1,927 acts of clemency, according to federal Department of Justice data. The Biden campaign said he misspoke and meant to say about 1,800, but instead said 18,000. 

Featured Fact-check

Trump has taken 38 clemency actions during his nearly four years in office, according to data through Sept. 8.

Experts previously told us that Obama followed a policy of clemency actions aimed at low-level criminals who were given long sentences many years ago, and he followed recommendations made by the Justice Department. Trump has largely acted on his own based on recommendations from friends, celebrities, media personalities and business colleagues.

In July, the White House announced that Trump commuted the sentence of longtime confidant Roger Stone on charges stemming from Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation. Trump’s announcement occurred days before Stone was set to begin a 40-month prison sentence.

In announcing Trump’s clemency actions in February, the White House cited the election of Edward DeBartolo Jr. to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as an NFL team owner and his charitable contributions; called Michael Milken one of America’s greatest financiers and noted his philanthropic work; and praised former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich for tutoring and mentoring fellow prisoners. (You can read more about their crimes here.)

Trump has taken some steps toward criminal justice reform. In December 2018, Trump signed the First Step Act of 2018, which the Washington Post described as "the most far-reaching overhaul of the criminal justice system in a generation." 

RELATED: Super Bowl Ad Watch: Trump on criminal justice reform

Our ruling

Biden said that during the Obama/Biden administration "18,000 people ... got clemency."

Biden misspoke and meant to say 1,800 got clemency. Federal justice department data showed Obama approved 1,927 clemency actions.

We rate this statement False.

Our Sources

U.S. Department of Justice, Clemency statistics, Accessed Oct. 6, 2020

NPR, Roger Stone Clemency Latest Example Of Trump Rewarding His Friends, Scholars Say, July 12, 2020

PolitiFact, Facebook post misrepresents Obama’s use of pardon power, Feb. 24, 2020

PolitiFact, Questions and answers about President Trump’s Roger Stone commutation, July 13, 2020

Statement from the Biden campaign to PolitiFact, Oct. 6, 2020

Email interview, Douglas A. Berman, Drug Enforcement and Policy Center, Director

The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, Oct. 6, 2020

Email interview, American University clemency expert and American politics professor Jeffrey Crouch, Feb. 21, 2020

 

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Amy Sherman

Biden inflated the number of clemency actions by Obama

Support independent fact-checking.
Become a member!

In a world of wild talk and fake news, help us stand up for the facts.

Sign me up