President Obama commuted the sentences of eight crack-cocaine offenders Thursday, including that of Clarence Aaron, who was serving a sentence of life without parole for a first-time nonviolent drug conviction when he was 23.
Aaron's story represents the worst excesses of the federal criminal justice system. Aaron, of Mobile, Ala., had no criminal record. He had held jobs. In 1992, he was a college student who decided to address his money problems by acting as an intermediary between two career drug dealers. The dealers paid him $1,500 to set up two large cocaine deals. They got caught. The ringleaders knew how to game the system. They pleaded guilty and testified against Aaron.
Aaron wasn't as savvy. He pleaded not guilty and lied on the stand -- which enhanced his sentence. The buyer planned on converting powder cocaine to crack -- that, too, enhanced Aaron's sentence. One deal didn't happen, but federal prosecutors charged Aaron for it anyway. Voila, he won the same sentence that was imposed on FBI agent-turned-Russian spy Robert Hanssen and now-deceased serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.
Aaron knows he broke the law. He had earned prison time. But what does it say when federal prosecutors seek and win life without parole for a first-time offender while letting the big fish finagle lesser sentences? All but one of Aaron's cohorts have been out of prison since 2000.
Best Christmas ever
Aaron's cousin, Aaron Martin, said the commutation made this season "the best Christmas ever." Attorney Margaret C. Love said, "We are grateful to President Obama."
In 2001, I began hectoring President George W. Bush to commute Aaron's sentence. Bush asked his pardon attorney to reconsider the petition, but the official misled him, failing to inform him that the judge and the U.S. attorney had come to support Aaron's petition, so the president said no.
When Obama was first elected, Aaron's family was convinced that America's first black president would free Aaron, who is African-American. In the first term, their hopes were dashed. Until Thursday, Obama had commuted only one sentence, that of crack-cocaine offender Eugenia Jennings, in 2011; Jennings died of leukemia in October. Finally, on Thursday, it happened.
"Today, I am commuting the prison terms of eight men and women who were sentenced under an unfair system" that was reformed three years ago under the Fair Sentencing Act, Obama said in a statement. "Each of them has served more than 15 years in prison. In several cases, the sentencing judges expressed frustration that the law at the time did not allow them to issue punishments that more appropriately fit the crime."