When Will Obama Reform Presidential Pardons?

As a candidate for president in 2008, Barack Obama pledged to “immediately” review federal mandatory minimum sentences “to see where we can be smarter on crime and reduce the ineffective warehousing of nonviolent drug offenders.” Obama also had written memoirs, in which he admitted to using marijuana and cocaine — “maybe a little blow when you could afford it” — as a teen. And he’s the first black president.

Linda Aaron, a black Alabama grandmother, voted for Obama. For years, Aaron had been hoping that President George W. Bush would commute the obscenely long prison sentence of her son, Clarence. Because of Draconian federal mandatory minimum sentencing, a federal judge sentenced Aaron when he was 24 to three sentences of life without parole for a first-time nonviolent drug offense.

Linda Aaron fully expected that if Bush didn’t use his presidential pardon power to commute her son’s sentence — and Bush did not — Obama would do so. It still hasn’t happened. Clarence Aaron is now 43.

The candidate who pledged to look at sentence reductions for nonviolent drug offenders became the president who, after rejecting nearly 3,800 requests, has commuted only one sentence while in office.

This column is not simply about Clarence Aaron. It is about a justice system that cannot correct itself when it knows that it has gone overboard.

Aaron broke the law in 1992, when he connected cocaine dealers for two very large drug deals. He deserved to go to prison. But what country puts first-time nonviolent 20-somethings behind bars for the rest of their natural lives?

There is nothing just about a system that metes out shorter prison time to co-defendants who are drug dealers (all but one of whom are now free in this case), than to a college student with no criminal record.

There is something perverse about a system that rewards drug dealers for pleading guilty and testifying against others, while it shows no mercy toward amateurs who don’t know how to game the system.

I’ve heard the arguments as to why Aaron doesn’t deserve a pardon. Drug deals are inherently violent. In refusing to plead guilty, Aaron refused to accept responsibility for his criminal actions. (That’s true, and because Aaron lied on the stand, the judge lengthened Aaron’s sentence.)

If you believe those arguments, as some people of good faith do, you still have to acknowledge that the system punished Aaron more for not pleading guilty and lying on the stand than it did for his brief role in the drug business.

There is no sense of proportion here. Aaron is serving the same sentence as Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent turned traitor.

In 2004, the U.S. Department of Justice pardon attorney recommended that the president not commute Aaron’s sentence. ProPublica recently reported that in a push for more favorable recommendations, the Bush White House had asked the Office of the Pardon Attorney to reconsider Aaron’s application.

Unfortunately for Aaron, current pardon attorney Ronald Rodgers passed along his predecessor’s recommendation that Aaron’s petition be denied. Rodgers failed to disclose that the U.S. attorney’s office had reversed its position so that it supported a presidential commutation from life without parole to 25 years — so that Aaron would be released in 2014. Samuel Morison, who used to work in the pardon attorney’s office, believes that Rodgers ill-served Bush, who would have commuted the sentence if his pardon attorney had passed on case facts.

On Thursday, Families Against Mandatory Minimums held an event to urge the Senate Judiciary Committee to investigate the pardon attorney’s office in light of Rodgers’ failure to pass on that key bit of news. Linda Aaron spoke at the event. Over the phone, she told me she is “puzzled” over Obama’s failure to commute her son’s sentence.

By any objective measure, Aaron’s life without parole is a cruel anomaly. I’ve been writing about his case for more than a decade because the criminal justice system won’t accept responsibility and correct its pernicious excesses. Normally when something’s broken, people who care for it fix it. But not the justice system.

Obama was supposed to bring sanity to a federal sentencing structure that over-punishes nonviolent drug offenders. But I guess he’s just too busy to get to Clarence Aaron.

Email Debra J. Saunders at [email protected].

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