Another Thanksgiving has passed without a presidential commutation for Clarence Aaron, who, at age 24, was sentenced to life without parole for a first-time nonviolent drug conviction in 1993.
President Barack Obama has the unfettered power to pardon ex-cons and commute the sentences of federal inmates. Yet this term, he has used that power to commute the sentences of turkeys only -- no people, even though the American Civil Liberties Union figures that close to 2,000 nonviolent offenders are serving sentences of life without parole in federal prisons.
Aaron was not a buyer or a seller but a facilitator who hooked up two professional drug dealers. All but one of Aaron's confederates has been released from prison. His remaining co-defendant is due for release next year.
Why did Aaron get the longest time? He didn't testify against the higher-ups, who sold or bought 9 kilograms of cocaine and planned to traffic another 15 kilograms. They cooperated with authorities. Also, the buyer planned to convert the powder cocaine into crack (which carries a harsher federal mandatory minimum sentence). The government was able to charge defendants for quantities not traded. Because Aaron didn't know how to game the system like a pro, he got life without parole.
That's a misleading term, according to Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. It's not a sentence of life as much as a sentence to live until you die in prison.
In 2007, President George W. Bush asked the Department of Justice pardon attorney to revisit its recommendation to deny Aaron a commutation. Pardon attorney Ronald Rodgers told the White House he still believed that Aaron's petition should be denied. Problem is, according to a 2012 inspector general's report, Rodgers withheld vital information on the case -- that the sentencing judge and prosecutor's office had reversed their staunch opposition to a commutation.
Even though he misled the previous president, Rodgers remains on the job. Attorney General Eric Holder gives lip service to reforming the draconian sentencing system, yet after winning re-election, his boss has not shown mercy to a single nonviolent offender.
"Pardon Power" blogger P.S. Ruckman Jr. rates the Obama administration as "one of the most merciless in history." Bush had a better record.
I can hear apologists leap to the president's defense. Obama dare not use this power, they pant, because Republicans would slam him for it.
For those critics, I have two words: Eugenia Jennings.