Federal mandatory minimum sentences have put small-time offenders behind bars for decades, yet Obama has been reluctant to commute sentences that far outstripped the crimes.
"Pardon Power" blogger P.S. Ruckman recently noted, "The typical Obama clemency recipient has committed some minor offense decades ago" and often with a sentence that included no or short prison time. The average age of Obama's 22 pardon recipients was, as far as Ruckman could discern, 61.
On Monday, the president finally got serious. He issued five pardons and also his first (and only) commutation. The recipient, Eugenia Jennings of Illinois, was sentenced to 22 years in prison in 2001. That's a long sentence, you might think; Jennings must have been a true crime kingpin to have rated such treatment from federal authorities. To the contrary, the 23-year-old mother got that hard time for selling 13.9 grams of crack -- about the size of six sugar packets -- to a confidential police informant.
Because Jennings sold crack -- as opposed to powder cocaine -- a federal judge was required to boost her prison time. Because Jennings had been prosecuted twice previously for dealing small amounts of crack, the feds pegged her as a career criminal, another sentencing add-on. Thus, the federal government used its awesome weight to bring to heel a pathetic young drug-addicted woman.
The Department of Justice did not elaborate as to the thinking behind Obama's commutation. But Families Against Mandatory Minimums issued a news release with a few hints. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., advocated for her release. Jennings, who is African-American, has been diagnosed with cancer but has been responding well to treatment. When she is released Dec. 21, she will be able to see her eldest daughter graduate from high school.
Though Obama commuted her prison time, Jennings will remain subject to supervised release for eight years. "I think it was a very thoughtful decision," Ruckman noted.
Jennings' pardon attorney, Thomas C. Means, acknowledges that prison may have done his client some good "for a little while -- perhaps a few years, even -- giving her a sheltered environment in which to kick the drug habit, to mature, to learn and to work hard."
But 22 years? The punishment far outweighed the crime.
I have an even worse criminal justice horror story. In 1993, Clarence Aaron received three sentences of life without parole as a first-time nonviolent drug offender. Aaron broke the law and earned time in prison. But he received a longer sentence because he didn't know enough to turn on the bosses behind two large cocaine deals. He foolishly pleaded not guilty and lied under oath. Because the buyer had planned to convert the powder cocaine into crack, his sentence was extended.
Like attorney Means, Molly Gill of Families Against Mandatory Minimums believes that Eugenia Jennings is an "extraordinary case." But also, Gill says, Obama should be "bold" and "unafraid" to do more. "This isn't political scandal; it's just doing justice."
Aaron has taken responsibility for the actions that put him in prison. He has a good prison record, and he's ready to start leading a normal life among a supportive and eager family.
Readers of this column know how tough I can be on violent career criminals. Vicious crimes deserve serious time. But the career criminals aren't doing hard time; their small-time subordinates are.
Besides, it is obscene that a young African-American man will spend the rest of his natural life in prison for a nonviolent, first-time offense committed when he was 23 years old.
Next month, Aaron will have spent 18 years in prison. As his commutation application notes, Aaron shows promise to be a law-abiding citizen, but he "continues to serve his life sentences, while all those who testified against him are now out of jail."
President Obama should free him.