The Presidential Turkey Pardon Insults the Real People Who Deserve to Be Pardoned

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Nov. 26 2013 12:10 PM

The Presidential Turkey Pardon Insults the Real People Who Deserve to Be Pardoned

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President Obama pardons two nonhumans in 2010.

Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Most national reporters are all but checked out on Thanksgiving week, having returned to their families in Real America. For those unfortunate few who are on the job until Thursday (ahem), most are content to file on the presidential turkey pardon and call it a week. I had the honor of covering the illustrious turkey pardon for NPR last year, but I was much prouder to help Ari Shapiro report on his excellent story about pardons under Obama.

Caramel and Popcorn are the lucky gobblers set to be pardoned this year, but I'd like to propose a new Thanksgiving tradition for the White House: Instead of (or perhaps in addition to) pardoning turkeys, the president could pardon real people. The rate at which the Obama administration pardons semiflightless birds is only a little worse than his administration's track record for pardoning human beings. Obama has pardoned two birds every year since 2009, compared with zero people in 2009, nine in 2010, 13 in 2011, and zero in 2012, out of 1,372 total applicants. The administration has granted one commutation of sentence out of 5,371 total applications.*

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The statistics of presidential pardon ratios as of last year—that is, the ratio of pardons granted to the number of human pardon applicants—speak for themselves:

Ronald Reagan: 1 in 8
George H.W. Bush: 1 in 19
Bill Clinton: 1 in 16
George W. Bush: 1 in 55
Barack Obama: 1 in 290

The Obama administration's ratio is much better this year—now more than 1 in 35 pardons are granted—mostly thanks to a slew of 17 pardons granted after the election was over. And an estimated 46 million turkeys are killed every year for Thanksgiving, so the pardon ratio of 1 in 23 million is admittedly worse for turkeys than for people, statistically speaking.

But guess what: Last year's pardonees, Cobbler and Gobbler, are already dead. Turkeys don't have as long of a lifespan as humans, nor do we normally put such a premium on a turkey's life compared with another human's life. And while it may not make for as good of a pre-holiday photo op, returning a father to his family's dinner table after serving years for a crime he's been exonerated of, or the friend who's been languishing in a jail cell for 33 years, may be just as newsworthy.

Anyway, back to what really matters: Are you #TeamCaramel or #TeamPopcorn?

*Correction, Nov. 26, 2013: This post originally misstated the number of applicants for commutation as 5,370.

Emma Roller is a Slate editorial assistant. Follow her on Twitter.

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