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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

At the White House today, President Obama took a break from more serious issues in order to fulfill a Thanksgiving tradition.

President BARACK OBAMA: Today, I have the awesome responsibility of granting a presidential pardon to a pair of turkeys.

(Soundbite of laughter)

President OBAMA: Now, for the record, let me say that it feels pretty good to stop at least one shellacking this November.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KELLY: Now, presidents have been pardoning humans for much longer than they've been pardoning turkeys.

But as White House correspondent Ari Shapiro reports, with this president, the turkeys are winning so far.

ARI SHAPIRO: As of today, President Obama's tally of pardons is as follows: turkeys, four; humans, zero.

Mr. P.S. RUCKMAN (Editor, Pardon Power): He's actually the slowest Democratic president in history to exercise the pardon power. In 30 days, he'll pass George W. Bush and become the slowest modern president since the two-party system to exercise the power.

SHAPIRO: P.S. Ruckman, Jr. is a political scientist who writes the blog Pardon Power. He says experts expected President Obama to grant clemency more than presidents Bush or Clinton did.

Mr. RUCKMAN: Former governors and Republicans in general have been less generous with the power. With Obama, of course, you have somebody who is not a former governor. He's a Democrat. And also, former lawyers have been more generation with the power. So there is this expectation historically that he would be different.

SHAPIRO: Consider the numbers. The average president took a hundred days to issue his first pardon. Bill Clinton went 672 days. George W. Bush went at 702 days. So in a way, Mr. Obama is maintaining the general trend of dwindling pardons from one presidency to the next.

Margaret Love was U.S. pardon attorney in the Clinton administration. She says up until the 1980s, pardons were granted regularly and generously across the calendar. They were a key part of the system of checks and balances, Love says, so a president could fix bad outcomes from the courts.

Ms. MARGARET LOVE (Former U.S. Pardon Attorney, White House): And starting with the Reagan administration, pardons began to become infrequent. And then in the Clinton administration they really fell off and began to be really, truly irregular.

SHAPIRO: The Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney reviews thousands of applications. And while a backlog there is part of the problem, Love says it's not the only problem.

Ms. LOVE: I know that this White House has had a number of recommendations from the Justice Department sitting on the president's desk for close to a year now. So it's kind of a mystery to me as to why they don't get started on what has traditionally been housekeeping business of the presidency.

SHAPIRO: One reason could be the controversy surrounding some recent grants clemency. President Clinton was excoriated for pardoning fugitive financier Mark Rich his last day in office. President Bush was criticized for commuting the sentence of former White House aide Louis Scooter Libby.

But those cases are the exception. Political scientist Ruckman says over 90 percent of pardons are granted to people who have already served their time. Clemency just clears their record and lets them vote, serve on a jury, or own a gun.

Mr. RUCKMAN: Their rights are simply being restored, so the idea that pardons require some kind of grand political capital to be spent is actually very ludicrous.

SHAPIRO: One woman whose petition is before President Obama is a 42-year-old mother and grandmother named Hamida Hassan. She is 16 years into a 27 year prison sentences for a first time nonviolent crack offense. The Nebraska judge who heard her case said he didnt want to give such a harsh sentence, but he saw no way to give a shorter term under federal sentencing guidelines at the time.

Under the sentencing guidelines now in place, Hassan would have already served her time.

Jay Rorty of the ACLU's Criminal Law Reform Project is leading a campaign on behalf of Hassan.

Mr. JAY RORTY (Director, ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project): I have worked with prisoners for a long time and Ive never seen the volume of letters and support from prison officials themselves in support of commutation.

SHAPIRO: But so far there's no word from the White House on this pardon or any other. In recent decades, half of all human pardons have been granted in the month of December, so Hamida Hassan and all the rest might have better luck next month.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, the White House.

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