In America, punishment should fit the crime
Debra J. Saunders
12/31/2001 12:00:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders
Clarence Aaron has been sentenced to as much time as FBI-agent-turned-Russian-spy Robert Hanssen.
Hanssen is a senior federal law enforcement official turned traitor. He leaked information for money on Russian "moles," and that information may have cost them their lives. But because Hanssen had information to trade, he avoided the death penalty and worked out a deal with federal prosecutors that gave him a life sentence. There is no parole in the federal system. And even if there was, Hanssen should stay behind bars until the day he dies.
Clarence Aaron is a veritable Boy Scout compared to Hanssen. In 1992, at age 23, Aaron, then a student at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., stupidly and wrongly set up a huge drug deal between some big-time dealers. As the PBS documentary "Snitch" reported, Aaron received a whole $1,500 for the transaction. It was his bad luck that later, after the drug dealers were caught, they were able to trade his name for leniency. Since Aaron lacked their connections, he had no bodies to offer to prosecutors and went to trial.
According to Aaron's attorney, Gregg Shapiro of Boston, the higher-up drug dealers who testified against him -- men with long criminal histories, some that included crimes of violence -- are now free.
But first-time nonviolent offender Clarence Aaron remains behind bars. He is serving three life sentences. Thanks to excessive federal sentencing laws, he'll rot in prison until the day he dies -- just like Robert Hanssen.
"Only a presidential commutation of sentence can free him," explained Eric E. Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation.
That's bad news, because President George W. Bush has issued no pardons or sentence commutations since he assumed office.
Said U.S. Department of Justice spokesperson Susan Dryden: "That's the president's decision, based on the recommendation of the pardon attorneys. That doesn't mean there won't be anything in the future."
The need for clemency has never been greater. As Sterling is quick to point out, the federal prison population hovered below 25,000 until the 1980s. Today, however, thanks to draconian federal drug laws that too frequently sentence nonviolent first offenders to years more than their crimes warrant, the federal prison population exceeds 158,000.
As a Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision noted, federal drug laws that were designed to be tough on drug kingpins have ended up over-punishing small fish: "Bold dealers may turn on their former comrades. ... Timorous dealers may provide information about their sources and customers. Drones of the organization -- the runners, mules, drivers and lookouts -- have nothing comparable to offer. ... Whatever tales they have to tell, their bosses have related. ... The more serious the defendant's crimes, the lower the sentence -- because the greater his wrongs, the more information and assistance he has to offer to a prosecutor."
I'll add that the sentencing laws have fallen disproportionately on African Americans. Like Aaron.
Bush can only gain politically by granting commutations to deserving inmates. After all, 2001 began with outgoing President Clinton's shameful pardon of billionaire fugitive Marc Rich, who was hiding in Switzerland following a 51-count 1983 indictment for tax evasion, racketeering and illegal trading with Iran. (Usually, to qualify for clemency, inmates are supposed to regret their crimes, as Aaron does. Rich bucked the trend by winning a pardon while unrepentant and on the lam.)
Clinton tried to hide the Rich pardon, as well as pardons for convicted politicians, among a total of 140 last-minute pardons. He added respectability to his choices by throwing in a handful of sentence commutations for first-time nonviolent drug offenders serving obscenely long sentences.
As Clinton rallies to put a kind spin on his jaded legacy, Bush easily could outclass his predecessor, just by setting up a special panel to free federal prisoners whose punishment far exceeds their crime. The panel could look at cases that have long haunted federal judges. It could target cases in which low-level offenders such as Aaron received sentences much longer than those meted out to drug kingpins.
Doing so would demonstrate Dubya's compassion and his commitment to serve all Americans, not just the rich and well-connect ed. It's the right thing to do. It's the just thing to do. It's the humane thing to do. It's the politic thing to do.
Alexander Hamilton referred to the presidential pardon power as a "mitigation of the rigor of the law." Government acts too big when it puts low-level first-time nonviolent offenders away for life -- and hands the same sentence to Clarence Aaron as to Robert Hanssen, a traitor with blood on his hands. Bush has the key to free Aaron from a sentence that never should have been handed down. He should use it.