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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Presidential pardons usually take the world by surprise. There's no advanced notice; the White House just sends out an announcement with the names of those receiving clemency.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Thanksgiving is one, lighthearted exception.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Recently, I've been taking a series of executive actions that don't require congressional approval.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: Well, here's another one. We can't wait to pardon these turkeys.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: That was last year's turkey pardoning ceremony at the White House, and President Obama will do it again tomorrow.

SIEGEL: We're going to get serious, though, and focus now on the president's record of pardoning humans. As NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, he doesn't do it often.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: People don't usually think of the president as a part of the justice system. Typically, that world includes judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers - not the chief executive. But George Lardner says the Constitution actually makes the president a key part of this web. Lardner is a former investigative reporter who's now writing a book on the history of presidential pardons.

GEORGE LARDNER: There was no such thing as probation or parole. If you wanted to get out of prison before your term's up, you had to get a pardon.

SHAPIRO: And lots of people did - but that was long ago. Recent presidents have barely used their clemency power. And President Obama is more frugal than any of them, says P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political scientist at Rock Valley College who studies pardons.

P.S. RUCKMAN JR.: He's granted 22 pardons, and one commutation of sentence.

SHAPIRO: Ruckman says no president since John Adams, has shown so little leniency. White House spokesman Matt Lehrich responded to my inquiry with this statement. Quote, "President Obama takes his constitutional power to grant clemency very seriously; and each recommendation received from the Department of Justice is carefully reviewed, and evaluated on the merits."

But President Obama's record is even more striking, if you compare the number of pardons he's granted with those he's rejected. Professor Ruckman crunched the numbers for the last five presidents.

RUCKMAN: Clinton, one in every 16; H. Walker Bush, one in every 19; Reagan, one in every eight...

SHAPIRO: George W. Bush granted one pardon for every 55 he rejected. And President Obama? He's granted one pardon for every 290 applications.

SAM MORISON: They really don't give a sort of fair and neutral review of every case.

SHAPIRO: This is Sam Morison, who spent 13 years working in the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney. He left in 2010.

MORISON: They tend to view any grant of clemency not as a good thing, as a criminal justice success story, but almost as a defeat - you know, that you're taking away something from what some good prosecutor achieved.

SHAPIRO: A Justice Department spokesman rejects that description. Wyn Hornbuckle says the department, quote, "is committed to providing a fair, careful and merit-based evaluation of every clemency application." In a statement, he also noted that the department has begun an independent study of the pardon data. Margaret Love was President Clinton's pardon attorney. She says the president doesn't see much to gain, by exercising clemency.

MARGARET LOVE: It's all - sort of all risk and very little reward, although I think that is a shortsighted view.

SHAPIRO: The risk was apparent to anyone who watched President Clinton, in 2001, pardon the international fugitive Marc Rich, whose wife was a big campaign donor. The backlash was huge. But Love says the president could use clemency power to highlight flaws in the justice system. There are more penalties than ever, for people with a conviction on their record. And many of those penalties never go away.

LOVE: I have a client, for example, who has a minor, white-collar tax offense from a number of years ago; who has a business in the Los Angeles airport. He cannot visit his business because he can't go into the secure area of the airport, because of his conviction.

SHAPIRO: That man, and others seeking pardons, can take solace in one trend. Half of all recent pardons have come in the month of December. So next month, they may be that lucky one out of 290.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News.

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